Two different groups of scary fanatics went on a rampage in the latest Game of Thrones episode, and it was pretty upsetting to watch, even by Thrones standards. The Sons of the Harpy and the Sparrows both want to restore old traditions, and they both build on the weaknesses of two very different queens.Spoilers ahead...

Sparrows and Harpies

Last night’s “Sons of the Harpy” features the Sparrow onslaught pretty early on, and ends with the Harpy massacre. Both groups have a certain amount in common — the Sparrows are religious while the Harpies are political, but they’re both reactionary organizations aimed at bringing back the old ways. They both use scary iconography (forehead scars versus creepy masks) and they both move with brutal efficiency. The main difference is, the Sparrows show their faces and are very public, while the Harpies operate by stealth.


And you could easily argue that Daenerys brought the Harpy campaign on herself just as much as Cersei invited the Sparrows. Daenerys liberated the slave-holding city of Meereen but had no plan for governing afterwards, and has made a series of mistakes that have alienated her from her own people - including her choice to execute the murderer of a captured Harpy instead of the Harpy himself. She’s tried to bring“justice” to Meereen, without being able to explain what that really means, especially in the context of a culture she doesn’t understand.

It all adds up to some pretty viscerally horrifying television.

Here’s what happens with both groups, in a nutshell. In Westeros, Cersei is trying to undermine the Tyrell family, whose daughter Margaery is married to her son King Tommen. First, she sends Margaery’s father Mace Tyrell to Braavos, to negotiate better terms with the Iron Bank. And she sends Ser Meryn Trant along with Mace, to “protect” him. Judging from the smirk on Qyburn’s face, Meryn has a different assignment.


(Although bear in mind, Braavos is where Arya Stark is training to be an assassin, and we’ve heard her chanting Ser Meryn’s name as one of her targets for vengeance. This could get interesting.)

Then Cersei meets with the ascetic High Sparrow, who’s now apparently High Septon for real, and surprises him by offering to let him arm his believers — the “Faith Militant” was disarmed 200 years ago by the Targaryens, but Cersei professes to be worried that septons and Silent Sisters are targets of violence, plus there is wickedness among the most wealthy that even the King cannot punish.


This leads to a horrifying sequence where we see the Sparrows smashing idols and brutalizing sex workers and their clients, intercut with Lancel Lannister getting his own decorative forehead scar. And then they arrest Margaery’s brother Loras, who’s been more and more openly gay recently, and toss him in a horrible cell.

Margaery works her wiles on King Tommen, but her husband is not really up to the task of dealing with this. He seems just kind of baffled by the whole thing, as he confronts his mother andtries to confront the High Sparrow. Worst of all, King Tommen nearly gets drawn into killing true believers on holy ground, while the crowd shouts“bastard” at him — showing that in her zeal to undermine Margaery,Cersei is actually undermining her own son.


In the end, Tommen more or less gives up on freeing Loras, and Margaery is forced to send for her grandmother. Watching Lady Olenna deal with this mess should prove entertaining— but there’s probably no putting that toothpaste back in the tube. In her quest for a short-term advantage over her rival, Cersei has found the one way of actually making things worse for the people of Westeros.

And meanwhile, Daenerys gets to share a light moment with Ser Barristan Selmy, talking about her brother Rhaegar’s love of singing to the people on the streets of King’s Landing. (Earlier in the episode, we’ve heard about Rhaegar kidnapping and raping Lyanna Stark, so this is an interesting contrast.) Then Daenerys goes back to sparring with Hizdahr zo Loraq, who keeps begging her to reopen the fighting pits and give the former slaves and masters of Meereen something in common again. Daenerys stands firm — but then there’s a sign that her reign is in trouble.


The attack by the Sons of the Harpy is brutal and horrible, and results in both Grey Worm and Ser Barristan being injured — maybe fatally, although let’s hope not. But the other thing that’s notable about it is that it’s incredibly well-coordinated. The Unsullied fighters are drawn into a trap perfectly, with the help of at least one sex worker who pretends to be grief-stricken over the death of her lover. At least two different confined spaces are cut off and turned into a killing ground.This is an insurgency that benefits from local knowledge and local support,that the occupying forces do not have.

Unlike the Sparrows, whose ideology of radical equality, charity and hatred for sin has been expressed loudly, we still don’t know much about the Harpies. They apparently want to bring back slavery, and they have some common people in their ranks, either for money or to feel better than the ex-slaves. But they’re clearly well-organized and have deep roots in the community.


So yes, Daenerys is almost as much to blame for the Harpies as Cersei is for the Sparrows.

Oh, and this episode uses aerial shots really brilliantly, including a few great views of the fighting in Meereen that show just how screwed Daenerys’ forces are. And there are also some nice images of a merchant vessel in the water, showing how alone Jaime Lannister is on his mission.

Jaime Lannister doesn’t want to start a war.

Meanwhile, Jaime Lannister and Bronn have become the brilliant new double-act on this show, now that Varys and Tyrion have parted ways. The two of them are traveling to Dorne, to rescueJaime’s daughter Myrcella, who’s been promised in marriage to the Dornish prince Trystane Martell.


Early on in this episode,they have a great scene inside the hold of the merchant ship, where Jaime keeps not quite being able to keep up his lies in the face of Bronn’s bluntness. In particular, Jaime calls Myrcella his “niece” instead of his daughter,and claims that Varys alone was responsible for releasing Tyrion — whom Jaime swears to kill, for murdering their father Tywin.

Jaime’s face as he tries to stick to these lies is sort of amazing. He can’t quite deny the reality that he’s responsible for his father’s death, along with fathering three illegitimate children who could be stoned to death. Later in the episode, he tells Bronn he wants to die in the arms of the woman he loves, and when Bronn asks if she feels the same way, he just gives a sort of weird look. When their ship passes Tarth, home of Brienne, Jaime looks at it and seems to be thinking of the mission he sent Brienne on, to restore both their honors.


So why send a single swordsman and a one-handed man with a well-known face on a mission to rescue Princess Myrcella? Jaime says it’s because he doesn’t want to send an army and risk starting a war — but it’s pretty clear from the outset that the two of them have a high risk of failure. They barely manage to take out four Dornish fighters, and the need to bury the bodies for stealth slows them way down. At least Jaime does a pretty good job of using his metal hand in a fight.

Unfortunately, if Jaime fails in his mission, he could still fight a war — if he gets caught, it could be seen as a provocation. And if he doesn’t rescue the Princess, then she’ll be used as a weapon.


Turns out the ship’s captain that brought Jaime and Bronn to Dorne has sold them out, just as Bronn predicted. And he’s captured by the Sand Snakes, the bastard daughters of Oberyn Martell (who died fighting for Tyrion last season.) They are Obara, Nymeria and Tyene, whom Oberyn acknowledged as his own daughters and taught how to fight — instead of using tears as weapons.

Now that the ruler of Dorne, Doran Martell, has refused to harm Myrcella or otherwise provoke hostilities with the Iron Throne over Oberyn’s death, Oberyn’s lover Ellaria Sand is determined to rally Oberyn’s daughters to fight for him themselves. They want to capture Myrcella and send pieces of her to Cersei, as a message. And now that they know Jaime is also trying to get Myrcella, they’re determined to get to her first. In other words, Jaime may end up helping to start the war he’s trying to prevent.


Tyrion plays detective

The episode actually begins with two different shots of the ocean, showing the two Lannister brothers on two very different sea voyages. Tyrion has been kidnapped by Jorah Mormont, who’s bringing him to Daenerys in a desperate and fool-hardy effort to regain her favor after she found out he was spying on her. What’s great is how quickly Tyrion deduces who Jorah is, why he was banished, and what’s going on after his gag is removed.

As Tyrion says, Daenerys is just as likely to execute Jorah and pardon Tyrion as the other way around.


What’s especially noteworthy in that scene is that Tyrion tries to convince Jorah that they’re “on the same side,” since he was already on his way to meet Daenerys. And Tyrion seems to be convincing himself that he wants to help Daenerys, too — not so much for gold or glory, but for hatred of Cersei.

And the captivity seems to bring Tyrion to life a bit more — he’s finally stopped wallowing in self-loathing, because he’s faced with more of a challenge again. It’s like a throwback to the wily Tyrion who was captured by Catelyn Stark back in season one.

Jon Snow and Shireen

Basically, Queen Selyse is a horrible person. Stannis’ wife is hanging around Castle Black scowling at everyone and looking down at all the people she’s ashamed of. Including Jon Snow and her own daughter, Shireen.


Selyse sees Jon Snow as the bastard son of some tavern wench that Ned Stark knocked up — but Stannis has his doubts about that, since that wasn’t really Ned’s style. Even before Jon became Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Stannis saw greatness in him.

In fact, Jon Snow has noble blood in his veins, and the potential for greatness — which is why LadyMelisandre comes to him and tries to screw his brains out. She wants to make another shadow baby, like the one with Stannis’ face that killed Renly. Except this one will have Jon Snow’s face and will kill Roose Bolton. If she just explained that to Jon, he might be on board, but instead she tells him that having sex with her is about celebrating life in the face of death, and some other mumbo jumbo.


Jon refuses, both because of his Night’s Watch vows and because he’s still in love with the dead Wildling girl Ygritte. He can’t cheat on her, even if she’s no longer alive for him to love.

Jon also says once again that he won’t go with Stannis’ army to attack Winterfell, where his local knowledge could come in handy. His home is Castle Black now, and he’s sworn to be the watcher on the wall. But every time Jon repeats that he’s not going to get dragged into the fight against Roose Bolton, he seems a little less sure.


And meanwhile, Samwell Tarly gives Jon a series of letters to local lords to sign, asking for more men and supplies for the embattled Night’s Watch. And Samwell tries to sneak a letter to Roose Bolton in there. As Samwell points out, Roose is the Warden of the North, and they need his help to survive — even if he did kill Jon Snow’s brother, Robb Stark. Jon reluctantly signs the letter, begging Roose for assistance.

As for Shireen, she’s the center of one of the few sweet moments in an otherwise dark and horrible episode. She comes to see her father, who’s stern and distracted as usual, and asks if he’s ashamed of her. In response, he tells her the story of how he bought her a wooden doll as a baby, in a rare moment of soft-heartedness, and the baby infected her with the deadly disease grayscale.


Everyone advised Stannis to send Shireen away, but instead he sent for every healer and maester in the land, until someone finally healed her. Becuase she’s the Princess Shireen, and his blood is in her veins, and she belongs at his side. It’s actually a beautiful moment, and probably the first time we’ve seen Stannis as a kind person.

And the contrast between Jon and Shireen is sort of significant — they both have noble blood, and they’re both valuable in Stannis’ eyes, but the noble blood saves Shireen from being defined by her disease, whereas for Jon it’s just a distraction.


Littlefinger’s Wager

Jon Snow would also have an additional incentive to help Stannis take Winterfell, if he knew that his half-sister Sansa was there. Sansa is still planning to marry Roose Bolton’s ex-bastard son Ramsay, a good sweet gentle boy who’s totally smitten with Sansa and whom she can wrap around her, umm, little finger.


At least, that’s what Littlefinger believes. If Sansa does have to go through with marrying Ramsay,she’ll just have to make him her own and out-maneuver Ramsay’s dangerous father. (In much the same way Margaery has been making Tommen her own and trying to out-maneuver Cersei.) Too bad we already know that Littlefinger has misread Ramsay pretty disastrously. (Or he’s pretending to have.)

Luckily, Littlefinger doesn’t believe that Sansa will have to marry Ramsay at all. Because he already knows that Stannis is at Castle Black, and that Stannis will have to march south before the winter snows set in. The next logical move is for Stannis to capture Winterfell, deal with the Boltons, and then enlist the aid of a grateful North in fighting the Lannisters.


And Littlefinger has his money on Stannis — we already saw Roose saying he doesn’t have enough men to hold the North, whereas Stannis has an army paid for by the Iron Bank of Braavos. And Stannis is one of the best military commanders in Westeros, and has Lady Melisandre. All Sansa has to do is sit tight and wait to be “rescued.”

Of course, Sansa should know by now that things never go the way you expect them to — nobody expected Rhaegar Targaryen to abandon his own wife (Oberyn’s sister) and steal Sansa’s aunt Lyanna instead. That started a war that killed tens of thousands of people and put King Robert on the throne.

Meanwhile, Littlefinger is rushing back to King’s Landing, where he’s got to explain himself to Cersei (and deal with the fact that religious fanatics have trashed his brothel.)


One Final Thought

Thus far, this season of Gameof Thrones is feeling very much of a piece with the previous four seasons. Not just the pace of the storytelling, but the balance of surprising twists and deep character insights, are feeling very much like what we’ve come to expect from this show.

This is in marked contrast to George R.R. Martin’s books, which change pretty dramatically after the first three volumes. The two books that this season is based on, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, are not just slower but also more inexorable than the first three books. Martin explores the dire consequences of war with a grim determination, while introducing many more mysteries and subplots. That’s not to say that Crows and Dragons aren’t mostly terrific — they’re just way less television-friendly.


On the minus side, the only issue I’ve noticed with the show’s changes from the books is a much-increased reliance on coincidences — the fact that Brienne manages to find both Arya and Sansa seems to strain credulity a bit, for example.

Still, there were two big questions about Game of Thrones season five: Could the show manage to turn those increasingly sprawling books into a fast-paced TV show? And was combining two huge volumes, totaling over 1700 pages, into 10 episodes of television going to result in a Readers Digest travesty? Based on the first four episodes of the season thus far, the answers appear to be a more or less unqualified Yes and No. The fact that season five feels so much in keeping with previous seasons, when its source material is so different, is a pretty great surprise in itself.