Many of our favorite Game of Thrones characters have broken sacred vows at this point. Jon Snow slept with a Wildling girl. Cersei made a mockery of her wedding vows. Roose Bolton stabbed his liege lord. But last night, we got to see them solemnly debating the meaning of religion, and what it means to be faithful.
But last night’s episode was called “High Sparrow,” and it puts the focus somewhat more solidly onto religion. Not only are there a bunch of different religions, but for each one there are debates or imperfect understandings as to how best to observe them. Let’s take them one by one:
High Septon vs. High Sparrow
In this episode, we meet the High Sparrow, played by the awesome Jonathan Pryce. He’s basically the leader of the Protestants in the worship of the Seven, who oppose all the opulence and hypocrisy of the priesthood led by the High Septon. Instead of nailing 95 Theses to the church door, the High Sparrow’s followers drag the High Septon out of Littlefinger’s brothel, where the High Septon is doing a sexytime version of religious ceremonies. They strip him naked and whip him along the streets, which is a pretty serious affront to the Pope of their religion.
The High Septon approaches Cersei and her Small Council about this sacrilege — but Cersei isn’t on the High Septon’s side, because she sees an opportunity here.
Cersei’s facing a tough situation — at the start of the episode, her remaining son Tommen marries Margaery, becoming Margaery’s third husband. And Margaery wastes no time boinking Tommen’s brains out and turning him against his mother. Margaery gets to frame things so that she sees Tommen as a man, while Cersei will always see him as her little boy — and when Cersei tries to undermine Margaery in turn, she only reinforces this.
When Cersei goes to visit Margaery, the dynamic of their earlier interactions is somewhat reversed. Now, Cersei is nothing but blandly pleasant to Margaery, who keeps goading her mother-in-law and insulting her more and more, under a jolly facade. Cersei’s completely out-maneuvered, and any hopes of controlling Tommen are slipping away. The look in Cersei’s eyes as she smiles at Margaery is absolutely lethal.
Elsewhere in the episode, Roose Bolton tells Littlefinger that Cersei still has powerful allies that she can call upon — but she still feels desperate enough that she makes a brand new alliance.
Instead of punishing the ascetic Sparrows for their assault on the High Septon, Cersei decides to throw the High Septon into the Red Keep dungeons. And she goes to visit the High Sparrow, who’s full of over-the-top humility, giving away his shoes and serving food to the poor himself. “We are all equal in the eyes of the Seven,” he keeps saying.
Cersei’s argument for supporting the High Sparrow over the High Septon has nothing to do with religious dogma or how best to honor the Seven. Rather, she argues that the Faith and the Crown are two pillars that support each other, and if one collapses due to hypocrisy, then the other does, too. In other words, she sees religion as essential to providing legitimacy to the Iron Throne, rather than important in its own right.
But Cersei apparently doesn’t really take in all of that stuff about everyone being equal in the gods’ eyes, or remember how weird her cousin Lancel was acting a couple weeks ago. Or maybe she’d stop to wonder just how useful a sect that preaches radical egalitarianism would be in propping up her own privilege.
Oh, and Cersei also looks in on Qyburn, her new Master of Whispers, who has an apparently dead body on a slab... until it sits up. What is Qyburn up to, and how does it relate to the experiments that got him disbarred as a maester?
The Many-Faced God
This episode begins with Arya inside the House of Black and White, the home of those shapeshifting assassins, the Faceless Men. Some of the most incredible visuals in episode involve that huge cavernous chamber, with its scary statues and its big round pool full of what appears to be poison, given what happens to one supplicant who drinks it.
Arya has been sweeping the floors for days, and she’s impatient to start learning cool assassin stuff. But even though she’s clear on the “all men must serve” part of the Faceless Men’s motto, she doesn’t really get what serving means — because “serving” has to do with worshipping the Many-Faced God, and that means becoming “no-one.”
Arya doesn’t actually see an image of the Many-Faced God among the statues in that big chamber — she sees various gods, from different cultures, but which one is the Many-Faced God? The man she knows as Jaqen responds that the real god they worship is death, who comes to everyone. (He doesn’t add that she should say “not today” to death, which is what his countryman Syrio Forel used to tell her.)
Becoming “no-one” is harder than Arya thinks — later, she gets attacked by her fellow apprentice, who keeps asking her who she is and beating her whenever she says “no-one.” Her teacher comes to her and points out that she still has Arya Stark’s clothes, sword and silver. How did “no-one” come to have all of Arya Stark’s stuff? So Arya has to throw everything into the canal — except the sword, which she hides.
As a reward, Arya gets to help the other apprentice wash a dead body. Yay?
So if the Faceless Men worship death, and see their killings as a quasi-religious service, then becoming “no-one” means you follow the Many-Faced God’s will rather than your own. There’s a whole process of letting go of your identity. In other words, you’re not supposed to hold onto your own personal desires or vendettas, any more than your old possessions. That’s probably going to be kind of an issue for Arya, who keeps repeating the names of the people she’s sworn to kill.
Jon Snow’s Vows at the Godswood
One of the most interesting moments in this episode comes when Jon Snow and Davos Seaworth debate the meaning of the vows the men of the Night’s Watch swear. Jon Snow made his vows before the Old Gods in the Godswood, making them a sacred obligation (although he’s already broken them with Ygritte.)
So when Stannis offers to legitimize Jon Snow, turning him into Jon Stark, in return for his help retaking the North from Roose Bolton, Jon has to turn him down. Especially now that Jon is Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, he can’t abandon his post just to go settling family scores. He’s also sworn to avoid getting sucked into political disputes.
But Davos counters that the most important bit of the oath that Jon swore was about being the shield that guards the realms of men — and sometimes, the most helpful way to do that isn’t by hiding out on a wall at the edge of Westeros, but by going down and getting your boots dirty doing “what needs to be done,” i.e. getting rid of the Boltons.
Just like Arya is learning to become “no-one” in the service of the Many-Faced God, Jon’s service to the Night’s Watch involves letting go of everything he used to be — but Davos is arguing that Jon can do more good as himself, taking a side, than he could as a Crow who no longer has a separate allegiance.
Meanwhile, Jon also faces his first test of his leadership as Lord Commander — he has to hand out some assignments, and instead of sending Ser Alliser Thorne away as Stannis recommends, he makes him First Ranger. (After first faking him out with the task of Latrine Commander, which he gives to someone else.) Then he assigns Lord Janos Slynt to command the crumbling castle of Eastwatch-by-the-sea, the easternmost castle the Night’s Watch defends. Janos refuses with a lot of bluster, so Jon has to cut his head off — and Ser Alliser doesn’t lift a finger to help his friend.
Who’s the Red God’s chosen savior?
Meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister gets tired of being stuck inside a box with Varys, so he goes AWOL in Volantis — where he hears a priestess of the red god R’hllor, who preaches that the Lord of Light looks upon all equally, slave and king. (Similar to what the High Sparrow says about his gods.)
More interestingly, the priestess spends a lot of her sermon to the slaves talking about their savior who was reborn from the fire — and she’s talking about Daenerys, the Dragon Queen. This is probably not surprising, since if you’re trying to inspire a crowd of slaves, who better to invoke than the woman who’s recently freed a lot of slaves?
But also, the priestess is saying that Daenerys is the reincarnation of Azor Ahai, a legendary hero to the worshippers of R’hllor — and a lot of the stuff seems to fit, like being reborn in fire. There’s just one problem: Melisandre, another red priestess, has been insisting that Stannis is the chosen savior instead. They can’t both be right, so who is it — Stannis or Daenerys? Here’s yet another religious schism, which is only hinted at in this episode.
This being Game of Thrones and Tyrion being Tyrion, it’s not long before we end up in another brothel, where they’re paying homage to Daenerys a different way. There’s a Daenerys lookalike sex worker, who wears a very revealing dress that vaguely resembles one of Daenerys’ outfits, and she’s the most popular worker in the establishment.
Tyrion, though, prefers the company of a grouchy bitter sex worker, because she has a “skeptical mind” — alas, though, when she offers to give him a freebie, he finds that he can’t go with her. Something about the crushing guilt and self-loathing of killing his former lover has left Tyrion unable to follow through. Tyrion’s mixture of astonishment, bitter humor and emotional turmoil belong among Peter Dinklage’s all-time great acting moments on this show.
When Tyrion goes out on the balcony to pee, instead, he finds himself captured by Jorah Mormont, whom we haven’t seen since Daenerys banished him last year. Now he’s hanging around the brothel staring at the Daenerys imitator, until he spies Tyrion and decides to take him to “the queen.” But which queen? Cersei would pay handsomely, and give him a pardon, for Tyrion’s capture. But who are we kidding? There’s only one queen Jorah cares about.
Sansa and Brienne both want revenge, but at what cost?
It’s amazing how many major events they’re packing into the episodes this season, especially given how slowly a lot of this stuff moves in the books — one major theme of Martin’s novels is that as winter grows closer, travel gets slower and slower. So in the late autumn, the journey across Westeros takes considerably longer than it did back in summer. But Sansa gets from the Eyrie to her destination, Winterfell, in a couple episodes.
It turns out that the marriage proposal that Littlefinger had accepted was for Sansa, not himself — he’s brokered a marriage between the eldest Stark girl and Ramsey Bolton. The Boltons desperately need to marry into the Stark family, because they may technically be in charge of the North, but none of their new vassals will obey them. Ramsey is forced to resort to flaying people alive — which, as his dad points out, is not a way to win people’s loyalty.
So Littlefinger brings Sansa back home to Winterfell, so she can marry the newly legitimized Bolton heir and cement their claim to the north. Once there, she finds that the servants in Winterfell remain loyal — one of them says “the North remembers” — and Ramsey Bolton is a sweet, charming boy. So charming, so lovely. And meanwhile, Theon Greyjoy, aka Reek, cringes and hides so she won’t see him doing menial chores in the yard.
The alliance between Littlefinger and Bolton seems to be precarious from the very first moment, however — when Littlefinger gets a message from Cersei, Bolton reads it before handing it over, and insists on reading Littlefinger’s response. Bolton is worried the Lannisters will find out about the Boltons’ betrayal (since Cersei wants Sansa for herself.)
But Littlefinger says that he controls the Vale, and Bolton controls the North, and the last time the lords of the Vale and the North joined together, they brought down the greatest dynasty the world has ever seen — i.e., when Ned Stark and Jon Arryn helped smash the Targaryens.
So how does Littlefinger convince Sansa to marry the son of the man who stabbed her brother Robb? By telling her that this is her best alternative to being a mere “bystander to tragedy.” By going to Winterfell and agreeing to marry Ramsey, Sansa will be in a position to avenge her family. How, exactly? Either by double-crossing the Boltons, or by using them to strike at her real enemies, the Lannisters. Either way, this seems like a risky plan, especially given how well we’ve gotten to know Ramsey. But the idea of vengeance is enough to get Sansa hooked.
(It’s interesting to watch Littlefinger’s face as he’s telling Sansa what he thinks she wants to hear. He’s holding her close so that they’re theoretically looking into each other’s eyes, but his eyes are off to the side and downcast, like he can’t quite face her as he spins his latest yarn. Everything about Littlefinger’s body language suggests he’s not being entirely honest with her, and she hasn’t got his number as much as she thinks she has.)
Meanwhile, Brienne also confesses that her main motivation is revenge — she’s determined to keep following Sansa and Littlefinger, and she’s already guessed where they’re going. But Brienne’s real goal in life is to kill Stannis, whose face she saw on the shadow that killed her beloved Renly.
This comes at the end of a beautiful scene where Podrick expresses his admiration for Brienne, the best fighter that Pod’s ever seen. (Brienne is facing the camera as Podrick talks behind her, so you can see her habitual annoyance turn to a bit of tenderness, and maybe guilt.) Brienne offers to train Pod to fight, and he tells the story of how he became Tyrion’s squire — Pod nearly got hanged after the knight he was squiring for got drunk and stole a ham for them. But instead, Pod was spared and reassigned to Tyrion.
Then Brienne tells of her first meeting with Renly, who saved her at a big dance where a bunch of boys decided to prank her by pretending to be into her. Renly danced with her and told her they were a bunch of little shits, and not worth crying over. So Brienne swore to serve him, but was unable to protect him. He was killed by a shadow, but it had the face of Stannis, who’s just a man and can be killed.
And it looks as though Brienne may get her chance to have a go at Stannis sooner than she realizes — he just mentioned to Jon Snow that he’s about to march on Winterfell. And meanwhile, Brienne is following Sansa, who’s just arrived at Winterfell.
So it’s possible that Brienne will have to choose between her two oaths — protecting Sansa, or taking revenge on Stannis. Which brings us back to the question that seems to run through a lot of this episode: When you swear a holy vow, deciding how to interpret it, and whether to break it, often seems to depend on exactly what you believe in.
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