If you thought after last week’s episode that a script by Bryan Cogman guaranteed a great episode, think again. This week, despite some very strong elements, suffers greatly from the total falling apart of one storyline and the divisive use of rape as a plot device by another. Although it’s the last scene of the episode, we start with Winterfell as per our usual geographically oriented approach to the series, given that we see no storyline at the Wall this week. Last season, I wouldn’t have dreamt of saying this, but I miss Jon. Well, into the fray.
Sansa in Winterfell has to contend with more Myranda, who prepares her bath and tries to scare her a bit. This is obviously the continuation of her attempts from the previous episode, and her dark hints at the fate of Ramsay’s former girlfriends would have scared Theon, but Sansa – although initially shocked – quickly grasps what this is about and comes to the logical conclusion, the one thing all those poor girls have in common: they’re lowborn, and therefore no one cares what happens to her. She, on the other hand, is a Stark of Winterfell in Winterfell and quite important to the continued legitimacy of the new Bolton dynasty. For the moment, this guarantees her survival, and Myranda has to grant defeat and leave the room.
There’s also an interesting thematic moment in this scene: Myranda tries to scare Sansa not by telling her lies, but by telling her the truth. Practically everyone else in the episode is lying: Littlefinger, Arya, Tyrion, Jorah, Cersei, Loras, Margaery – all of them lie with varying degrees of success. The truth Sansa has to face, however, is as so often the most shocking thing of all, since this here is Westeros, where, in the undying words of Ramsay, “if you think this has a happy ending you’re not paying attention”.
The same element of truth, as opposed to the wholly fabricated bullshit cover-up from the books, pervades throughout the wedding ceremony. Theon has to face his identity and past once again, which will be pushed more front and center in the episodes to come, and Sansa is coming out all in the open for the world to see for the first time. Hell, Myranda even washed the fake dye from her hair in the truth-bath before.
Then, of course, comes the bedding. Now, I’ve said before that we don’t yet know where Sansa’s story arc is leading us and should be careful to judge too soon. The rape that Ramsay commits on Sansa may yet lead to a meaningful storyline. However, given the at best mixed performance record of the show on this subject so far, I’m somewhat skeptical. The first thing is – why? Showing bad guys are bad using rape as a tool is something that Martin doesn’t shy away from, but it’s a highly problematic storytelling tool. And Ramsay for sure doesn’t need it. Given what we know about him, raping Sansa doggy-style is nothing that would be out of the ordinary for him.
This scene is also not a necessary consequence; Roose could have warned Ramsay not to spoil the image, forcing him to behave like Joffrey was forced to behave in Tywin’s presence. The only way this scene has a reason to exist is if it somehow really gives Sansa a character development that revolves around this and not use it as a “traumatic experience to be overcome” or something. The jury is still out for this one, but the writers can be sure that Sansa’s storyline is watched a lot more closely than it already was.
Another point I want to make about this before I shut up: I am well aware that marital rape like it was depicted here was commonplace not only in Westeros but also in our world until very, very recently. It is a topic that is still talked about way too little and that needs to be addressed in popular culture as well. All granted. But this particular storyline with these particular characters is a very bad place to do this, if Cogman’s idea was to take the plot into this particular direction.
This is, by the way, not to take anything away from the pure cinematic quality of the Winterfell sequences. Theon’s face during all of the scenes is incredible, the lighting and location design is superb, and cladding Sansa in that white, snowy cloak also was a really good call, contrasting well with Ramsay’s black villain leathers. Let’s wait and see where this is going.
And with that, let’s drive over to King’s Landing, where, after travelling for only one episode, Littlefinger has arrived in the capital. His sources weren’t as good as they often seem, because the presence of the Sparrows and them being led by Lancel somehow catches him off guard. While Cersei’s name seems to carry some weight, his inability to get out of the situation any other way than that and his spectacularly bad judgement in verbally attacking religious fanatics on the rise are breathtaking.
Of course, this is nothing compared to the game he plays with Cersei. The queen, drunk again (isn’t it beautiful how Lena Heady makes Cersei’s speech more slurred and blurry with every episode, showing her physical decline and the stress she is under? If that’s what will cause her to crack in the end I call it a well done second option to the clear descent into madness from the books, but it makes the flashback at the beginning of the season kind of obsolete. Just saying.
Back to Littlefinger. His plan is…audacious, to say the least. He tells Cersei that he found Sansa Stark in the North, marrying Ramsay because Roose is defying her. OK, that came unexpected. Cersei reacts as to be expected, though, calling for her head. Littlefinger counts down possible military commanders (which suggests he IS informed about the matters in the capital. Make up your mind, show) and ultimately suggests to rally the knights of the Vale to storm the North, all before the cold winds are rising. I really have to try hard to leave all the book knowledge behind me because I’m not sure anyone if I should believe anything of this. The knights of the Vale would follow Littlefinger, either against Roose or the Iron Throne (who cares, really)? An army could be raised, marched north and fight some battle before winter comes? And all of this so Littlefinger becomes Warden of the North? I guess we’re past the point where Littlefinger’s plots try to make any sense at all, so let’s roll with it and see if we somehow end up in a sensible place.
In the meantime, the Queen of Thorns came back to King’s Landing, complaining about the filth. Good to have you back, mylady! Olenna is going directly to Cersei, demanding Loras be freed and trying her usual no-bullshit-attitude, but this time, she’s going nowhere. Cersei simply isn’t playing her game and not buying into her “rivals have to work together sometimes”-crap. Both of the women present a kind of hubris that will be their doom, I’m pretty certain. Olenna doesn’t care one fig about the Faith and the forces it unleashed, and Cersei is so much aloft (“house Lannister has no rivals”) that there has to be a sharp and brutal fall in the near future. Right now, nothing is in evidence for this, but she has four episodes left to fall out of love with the High Sparrow, so I am content to wait.
For the moment, there’s a trial going on. Oh, wait, no, a “holy inquest” or something. The scenes is shot beautifully, full of suspense. You just know that Margaery and Loras are digging their own grave, but no one knows yet why. Olyvar, of course, who seems suspiciously upbeat during his confession. Is the High Sparrow handing our pardons for blasphemy now as long as you indict a queen and her brother? Else, the chips fall in a manner that works perfectly, and Tommen, insecure as always, blows his one chance to assert the royal monopoly of force and justice by staying the hands of the kingsguard. Cersei, your smug grin about this will come to haunt you soon enough. The kingsguard won’t protect you, either.
With that, let’s go to Dorne, the place where sense and plotlines go to die. Really, there was great anticipation before the season about Dorne getting a place in the sun (heh!) and the Sandsnakes and Prince Doran and everything, but seeing the final result, it is more than just a letdown. The letdown was until now, with the stupid introduction of the Sandsnakes and the somehow less than anticipated fun of the Jaime-Bronn-coupling. This episode, Jaime and Bronn masquerade as Dornish by taking on their cloths like this was some Errol-Flynn-adventure movie from 1937 and walk unmolested into the Water Gardens right up to Myrcella and Trystane, all in the space of about three minutes. No amount of singing by Jerome Flynn can make up for this bullshit. Not even Littlefinger would have dared to pull such a stunt.
But things get worse. In some villain’s den, Ellaria is swearing in the Sandsnakes with the Martell words none of them has any right to for no particular reason, and then they leave the den in the most suspicious manner possible, also fully armed and swinging their weapons around like they’re some first-time-LARP players, and confront Jaime and Bronn who just, according to the Brienne school of diplomacy and subterfuge, directly confronted Myrcella and knocked out Trystane. Good job at avoiding a war and all, Ser Jaime. This really was the best plan ever devised to achieve just that. Bronn, of course, is now officially toast, having been cut by one of the Sandsnakes. Or does anyone think that the weapon wasn’t poisoned?
The Sandsnake’s plan, by the way, was just as stupid. What did they intend? Dragging a screaming Myrcella right out of the Water Gardens under Doran’s very nose, with Trystane not knocked out, and somehow just making it out? The stupidity and sheer pointlessness of everything that is happening right now in Dorne is utterly breathtaking. My god, this is so bad it defies everything. Add to that the absurd fight choreography, in which three Sandsnakes don’t manage to overcome one-and-a-half men for some reason despite having the element of surprise, the knowledge of the surroundings and the long range weapons, and you remain dumbfounded in your seat. What a waste of screen time.
To end the episode on two high notes, let’s go to Essos.
In Braavos, Arya is fed up with washing corpses and demands entrance to the inner sanctum, but she doesn’t get it. Instead, the inexplicably aggressive waif plays the lying game again. The show does a great job of completely explaining it to us in only three scenes AND to show the progress Arya is making in a marked passage of time. Here, Game of Thrones is really showing what it can do again. From the total loss at the game against the waif we got to Jaqen testing her officially. This whole sequence calls back so many of the events of the past time and is also a test for the viewer. Do you spot Arya’s lies before Jaqen hits her? This could be a good drinking game. Also drink once for every detail you don’t remember.
After that, Arya puts her newfound skills to the test in a heartbreaking scene with a father and his terminally ill daughter whom she eases over into the Nightlands. She passes this particular test. Jaqen informs her that while she’s not yet ready to become No One, she’s ready to become someone else. The whole Room of Faces is just incredibly shot. It looks perfect and continues the aura of mysticism and deep secrets that this place holds. Very well done.
Equally well done is the continuation of the Jorah-Tyrion-roadmovie. Jorah’s greyscale is growing fast, so he presses Tyrion not talk so much and to march at a brisker pace. Of course, Tyrion doesn’t hold his trap shut and Jorah for the first time asks why he is in Essos in the first place. Come to think of it, I don’t remember how this particular detail played out in the books. I have to reread. Anyway, Tyrion spills the beans over the Lord Commander’s death, news that Jorah also didn’t know about. The revelation unleashes a whole torrent of emotions all over his face, testament to the great acting abilities of all parties involved.
They don’t have much time to grieve, however, as they stumble across a party of slavers led by Mr. Eko. I have to admit, I didn’t expect to see the slavers in this capacity, but it makes sense. The scene also gets some real stakes by them wanting to kill Tyrion, whose only recourse is in stalling them off until they find a dwarfcock merchant. Way to go, lord of Casterly Rock. At least he got in an aggressive rebuttal to the idea that he has a small cock. Jorah is sold as a great slave for the fighting pits, which keeps them on the route to Meereen. Well, well. And you, that’s the problem with reviewing episodes like this. Game of Thrones is still a great show, and most of its many story threads work perfectly well and are done very, very good. Botched jobs like the Sandsnakes, Littlefinger or (perhaps) Sansa’s rape stick out even more like sores.