27th Apr2015

‘Game of Thrones 5×03: High Sparrow’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“It’s only a name.  Quite an easy burden to bear.”

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Let’s start with a temple.  Its priests have no names, its god has no prayers, and the house jam is Mandel and Altman’s “Suicide Is Painless” on endless repeat.  The High Sparrow is a paranoid, spine-tingling, and grotesquely enjoyable episode of television in which identities are bought, sold, and tossed in the river while matters of the flesh and the spirit are debated, er, forcefully.

“To serve well,” says the assassin formerly known as Jaqen H’ghar, “a girl must become no one.”  When Arya asks him which of the House of Black and White’s many statues is the many-faced god, he replies that she already knows the truth of the matter: there is only one god, and that god is Death.  The people who come to the dreary House of Black and White find solace in the waters of its poisoned well, taking the release of Death’s gift over the pain of toiling through life.  The House’s novices wash the bodies of the dead with evident respect, but what happens afterward is left ghoulishly unclear when Arya’s questions go unanswered.

Arya herself could find solace in a life of religion, a life that would free her from the pain of her love for a family torn away from her by war.  All she has to do is throw her old life into the waters of Braavos, learn, as Jaqen instructs her, to be no one, and she can leave her grudges and her wounded heart behind.  What kind of peace she’d find in a temple of assassins is up for debate, but the point is moot; Arya can dispose of her clothes, her stolen silver, maybe even her name, but she can’t get rid of the sword Jon gave her way back in the series premiere.  Just looking at Needle brings on tears, so she buries it in a rock wall near the sea.  Whatever makes a Faceless Man, Arya doesn’t have it, and the sword is as much a symbol of her inability to let go of her self and her family as it is a symbol of her unwillingness to abandon revenge.

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Other people, like that pillar of the community Cersei Lannister, are being handed names they’d rather not think about.  When Margaery asks her mother-in-law whether she’d like to be the queen mother or the dowager queen, Lena Headey, through a mask of subdued politeness, effortlessly communicates Cersei’s desire to cave Margaery’s skull in with a decorative statuette.  Margaery is taking the early rounds, getting her claws into her new husband king Tommen (who’s doing his share of getting things into people) and using the new leverage to shove Cersei farther from the crown she covets.  Cersei might have the Small Council sewn up, but as her uncle Kevan reminded her last week she’s still subject to dismissal; a few more jokes her being past her prime and it’s all anyone will think about when they look at her.

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So, in the immortal words of Don Draper, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”  Cersei seizes on the religious fervor sweeping through King’s Landing as a chance to stack the deck in her favor, throwing the nakedly sacrilegious High Septon into her dungeons and going fishing for an ally.  The object of her attention is the High Sparrow, a mendicant preacher played with scene-stealingly wry humility and lack of pretension by the one and only Jonathan Pryce, a real casting coup.  The Sparrows’ leader jokes about his fundamentalist movement, quipping about his unflattering title while he ministers to the poor with Cersei, nose wrinkled, tailing him.  He keeps his tone mild and his message of equality and justice positive, but his thugs just dragged the High Septon out of a brothel and into the streets.  Cersei sees an ally in him and there’s no doubt he sees an opportunity in her, but there’s no universe in which the judgment of a man like that won’t someday come down square on the head of a woman like her.

“Having a man like that in the Great Sept corrodes the faith from within,” Cersei says of the former High Septon.  Meanwhile, she’s harboring a grave-robbing vivisector in the person of her new master of whisperers.  We get a peek inside Qyburn’s lab where Anton Lesser portrays the Westerosi Dr. Herbert West with unseemly good humor and vulturous inquisitiveness, poking and prodding at rats, shushing an undead monstrosity like a bored dad bouncing a fussy baby, and absentmindedly taking dictation for Cersei (who seems totally unfazed by his laboratory of horrors) in between crimes against humanity.  With both Qyburn and the High Sparrow, Cersei is trying to wield weapons she can’t hope to understand or control.  Both have the potential to turn against her, and despite their opposite approaches both conceal their nastier traits beneath a mask of general pleasantry.

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The Boltons hoist flayed prisoners over the gates of Winterfell, the glistening muscle and viscera one of the most gorge-raising visuals the show has ever tried its hand at.  The carnage is echoed at the dinner table where Roose (a tragically beardless Michael McElhatton) and Ramsay (Iwan Rheon, repulsive as ever) discuss the matter of the flaying itself, a punishment meted out by Ramsay against the late lord Cerwyn and his family for their refusal to pay taxes to the Boltons.  “And what happened then?” Roose asks dryly when the monstrous tale concludes.  Ramsay shrugs, chewing.  “The next Lord Cerwyn paid his taxes.”

There’s a menace in every scene where Ramsay interacts with Sansa, who accepts the abhorrent idea of marrying into the family that helped kill her own on Littlefinger’s layaway promise of revenge.  The younger Bolton shows no sign of his monstrous nature, but we’ve seen his true self and the idea of Sansa anywhere near him (and his band of jealous mistresses), much less in his bed, is enough to make skin crawl.  That she’s caught up in a larger scheme wherein her value is determined solely by her name (Roose Bolton says as much) is hardly comforting.  Seeing Winterfell gutted and swarming with Bolton soldiers (along with their aforementioned festive pinatas) is perhaps less shocking for us than it is for Sansa, but for sure it’s melancholy even with the old Northerner servant welcoming Sansa in secret as her Lady.

At the Wall, Jon turns down Stannis’s offer to erase his bastardy and make him a Stark.  Harrington sells what it costs Jon to turn down the first thing he can remember wanting, and when he’s forced to step into Ned Stark’s sentence-passing and sword-swinging shoes and behead a terrified Janos Slynt for insubordination he brings a terse, psyched-up intensity to the scene.  Slynt’s dying confession is moving, an admission that he’s afraid and always has been.  Jon beheads Slynt, Stannis gives him a “well done, dour surrogate son” nod, and Jon feels appropriately terrible about his day/life.

In Voltanis, a fantastically ramhsackle city built on a bridge over a mighty river, a disguised Tyrion pauses to watch a red priest deliver a sermon on the night, darkness, terrors, etc.  There’s some real populist jazz in there, too, with the priest intoning passionately: “He hears the king as he hears the slave.”  She’s a far cry from Melisandre’s murky messianic prophecies, which makes you wonder what exactly king Stannis’s loyal adviser is up to.  Disturbed by the priest’s apparent insight into his thoughts and relishing his first taste of freedom since he and Varys began their long journey by box, he calls at a brothel only to discover that his disastrous night in the Tower of the Hand (during which he killed his former lover and his father) has left him too traumatized and guilty to have sex.  Shortly after that revelation, Tyrion is confirmed to have terrible luck with impulse stops at roadside inns.

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