06th May2015

‘Game of Thrones 5×04: Sons of the Harpy’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“I could say that our minds are temples to the Seven and should be kept pure, but the truth is, I don’t like the taste.”

Laws are what we make of them.  In the High Sparrow’s self-deprecating explanation as to why he doesn’t drink wine is a deeper, darker truth: we obey laws for our own reasons, reasons which often don’t touch on right or wrong.  ‘Sons of the Harpy’ is an episode concerned with what makes people tick, the manifold fallible motivations behind why we do what we do.

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For Jaime, voyaging to Dorne with a skeptical Bronn in tow, it’s a chance at redemption and validation.  Robbed of his skills as a swordsman and of the love of his sister, a woman he killed for more than once, he’s desperate to see himself as useful.  When Bronn needles him, asking “Why not send forty of me, or an army?”, Jaime’s only response is a browbeaten “It has to be me.”  He knows, as Bronn tells him, that he’s risking war just by bringing his highly recognizable face south, but if he can’t rescue Myrcella then his last hope of relevance in a world that already thinks he’s an incestuous king-slaying traitor goes up in smoke.

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Tommen, caught between his wife’s Id-tweaking manipulations and his mother’s stone-faced refusal to play ball, just wants to finish dinner without having to answer tough questions about whose brother is in which cell and why the king can’t seem to get a meeting with the High Sparrow.  Cersei’s power play, arming the Faith of the Seven and giving them free reign to unleash a wave of blackshirt violence and bigotry on King’s Landing, is one that seems custom-built to go out of control.  While ale sloshes down the city’s streets and steps like a precursor to blood, the mild-mannered High Sparrow’s followers show their leader’s true colors by beating prostitutes, gelding gay men, and and grinning like giddy children in a candy shop every step of the way. Tommen is left bouncing helplessly between more experienced players, unwilling to unleash his own sworn swords because of what looks like a keen awareness of the consequences of violence.

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Tommen’s refusal to characterize his Kingsguard’s offer to “clear out this rabble” as anything but awful is both sweet and sad.  The king has it in him to rule with compassion, but he’s inexperience and surrounded by those who feel no compunction over violence.  His adherence to the laws of his conscience won’t save him from the unfeeling cruelty of the world in which he lives, a world where people like his cousin Lancel declare themselves the law while dealing out beatings and dragging people away to prison without cause.  This is the world the High Sparrow wants, not one of quiet prayer and selflessness but one where he can exercise his sense of justice by pulling the people of King’s Landing up by the roots and tossing them on the pyre.  He does what he does because he wants to do it, because beneath his pleasant exterior is a monster too slippery and subtle for Cersei to see that when he piously intones “All sinners are equal before the gods,” he’s thinking just as much about what size to make her noose as he is about gelding brothel customers.

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Redemption drives Jorah’s kidnapping of Tyrion, Lancel’s conversion from milksop to fanatic, and Jaime’s quest to free his daughter/niece from Dornish hands.  Elsewhere, Sansa contemplates revenge on her family’s killers while Jon Snow faces the twin tests of begging aid for the Wall from those same killers and then turning down sex with Carice van Houten’s Melisandre.  The humanity.  Sam, playing Radar to Jon’s col. Henry Blake, reminds his old friend that being Lord Commander means he has to set aside the deaths of his brother, sister-in-law, and foster mother so that the Wall can benefit from Roose Bolton’s patronage(which will probably come with an icily smug look and a couple of calculated insults).  Jon signs the letter to Bolton like someone willing his child’s inheritance over to the estate of Adolf Eichmann, reminded again that his desires and his duties won’t always converge.

Elsewhere, revenge is very much on the minds of the Sand Snakes and Ellaria.  Oberyn’s bastard daughters are a motley crew.  Mama’s girl Nym, calculating Tyene, and brutish Obara keep the loose-lipped captain of Bronn’s and Jaime’s ship buried up to his neck in hot sand, scorpions swarming over his head, while they debate over how they’re going to start a war.  The camera sweeping after Ellaria as she rides down the coast and then sweeps through the sisters’ encampment lends a sense of urgency to their council, and by the time the scene ends the race to reach Myrcella is on.

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The episode gives us two very different portraits of notable posthumous character Rhaegar Targaryen, Dany’s older brother who loved Lyanna Stark and fought a war to have her.  On the one hand is a man who played his harp in Flea Bottom and gave the money to orphans and minstrels, who drank with his beloved guardian and disdained killing but loved to make music.  On the other is a selfish madman who abandoned his wife and children to their deaths and plunged the realm into war to apparently abduct Sansa’s aunt and rape her to death in a secluded tower.  The two monologues, one delivered at the peak of a pyramid and the other in the crypts below Winterfell, show the impossibility of knowing a man’s mind and heart.  Who knows why Rhaegar did what he did?

There are a few false steps over the episode’s course, moments that slow things down without really delivering any return.  Stannis’s monologue to his daughter seems more like a speech to make Stannis seem nicer than Selyse(and another opportunity to bring up the Stone Men, whom I gather we’ll be seeing soon) than it does anything of actual import to the relationship between father and daughter.  If he cares so much about Shireen, why has he ignored her so consistently?  Sure he’s busy, but the “damn the doctors, I knew you’d live” routine just rings hollow against the weight of Stannis’s characterization.

The closing action sequence is impressive, a close-quarters death match between the Unsullied and the titular Sons of the Harpy in a hallway that turns redder and redder as the seconds tick past, but the stakes feel invented and the hook for the fight(treacherous prostitute fools dutiful soldiers) is a bit worn on the second go around.  The presence of Grey Worm and the heroic ser Barristan seems contrived, the absence of Dany or any other important person the Sons might be trying to off a bit confusing after earlier in the episode we see them swarming through tunnels under the city.  Ser Barristan’s death, a notable divergence from the books, sets up an exciting opportunity for the show to develop characters like Missandei and Grey Worm, but it’s hard not to see it as a bit of a wasted opportunity for the death of a character who failed king after king to have nothing at all to do with his queen, the last person he swore to protect.

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