This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will occasionally refer to future events more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. And if you have for any reason seen future episodes of Game of Thrones and choose to discuss them here, I’m giving you to Qyburn, so let’s avoid that, shall we?
For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies.
From a book reader perspective, we can generalize and say that Game Of Thrones’ fifth season has been defined by the departures from its source material—more than any other season, there is significant uncertainty regarding where parts of this story are heading, which manifests most significantly in the reveal of Littlefinger’s plan for Sansa in “High Sparrow.”
However, the episode simultaneously reminds us that Game Of Thrones has been changing the books since the beginning, albeit through more subtle extensions of existing storylines. Whereas Sansa’s storyline represents the most significant invention from Benioff and Weiss in their work adapting the series, the goings on in King’s Landing bring new perspectives on events from the books, while Tyrion’s storyline benefits by fast-forwarding to a crucial point of convergence. The changes range from the subtle to the significant, and capture the challenge of and potential in adapting this story to a new medium.
The shift in Tyrion’s story is driven by efficiency. Whereas Tyrion’s river journey to Volantis was a crucial space of exposition and character-building for Martin in A Dance With Dragons, here the show is either excising those characters entirely or choosing to introduce them in a different way. Instead, Tyrion’s arrival to Volantis gets across two central points of that journey in a much short period: the Red Priestess’ sermon brings up greyscale and gives Tyrion a chance to remark upon it, and then Tyrion’s struggles to do more than banter with the young woman at the brothel reinforces the post-traumatic fallout from his encounter with Shae and his father. The latter was bludgeoned over our heads with the “wherever whores go” refrain in the books, whereas the former was central to the Shy Maid’s journey to Volantis and the attack of the Stone Men. The points are still made here, but they’re made through brief scenes, allowing the show to quickly move into Jorah reemerging from his exile to kidnap Tyrion and take him to “the Queen.”
While Tyrion’s storyline represents a case of the show distilling events from the books into key takeaways to create a more efficient storyline, Cersei’s storyline is being fleshed out by the introduction of new points-of-view. There are other small changes to Cersei’s own storyline, of course: rather than the High Septon having died and prompting an election, the Sparrows embarrass the High Septon in Littlefinger’s brothel, prompting Cersei to see an opportunity to assert her authority by giving him to Qyburn and turning to the High Sparrow (the terrific Jonathan Pryce) instead. We could have a larger discussion about what Cersei’s precise motivations are for this, which I don’t know if the show has articulated clearly, but we can have that discussion when that storyline unfolds as the season progresses.
More importantly, Cersei’s storyline is changed dramatically by the expanded roles of Margaery and Tommen. In the books, Cersei’s paranoia regarding Margaery is just that: paranoia. Although we can presume—and the books eventually confirm—that Margaery is not entirely innocent, we never get to see her perspective in the midst of Cersei’s power play. The show’s Margaery is much more outwardly cunning, her grandmother’s granddaughter in ways that keep Oleanna’s spirit alive even as Diane Rigg takes at least the first part of the season off. We have also had more opportunity to get to know the character from the beginning, with scenes focused on the character starting with Renly and Loras and continuing on through her relationship with Joffrey and now with Tommen.
For Tommen, meanwhile, the biggest change is that he is an actual character. Tommen is a child in the books, something that the show started with but abandoned when they recast the role for season four. Tommen is now a maturing teenager, old enough to have opinions and—most importantly—old enough to consummate his marriage. Although we only hear heavy breathing in the transition from Tommen and Margaery’s wedding to their post-coital conversation, it changes their dynamic considerably. Yes, Margaery is still manipulating Tommen into trying to send his mother back to Casterly Rock, but he has something approaching real agency, and his own opinions and observations that can serve the storyline going forward.
These changes have been building since Margaery’s introduction back in season two, but their impact here gives Cersei’s storyline an expanded worldview. Cersei’s chapters in the fourth and fifth books are among the most internal in the series—she has a few confidants, but they are less characters and more sounding boards, leaving her largely reflecting on her position in her own head. This serves the storyline unfolding, but the show requires more context, which is why the expanded roles for Tommen and Margaery are so productive. The story may ultimately be heading down a similar road, but having other characters along for the journey and capable of creating dramatic action gives it a new dynamic, and keeps it as a centerpiece for the season as foretold by the flashback that opened the premiere.
That being said, the centerpiece of “The High Sparrow” is undoubtedly the Starks, or rather the children formerly known as, recently not known as, or forever dreamed of being known as Starks, respectively. It’s an instance where there are two storylines that are most or less ripped directly out of the books, and another one that has been invented in order to serve as a thematic parallel.
Arya and Jon have always existed in parallel to one another: even though they have not seen each other since season one, Needle exists as a thread between them. And in their storylines at this point in the narrative, they each face a crossroads at which they most confront who they want to be and who they were in the past. Jon, having been elected Lord Commander, must decide whether his childhood dream of being a Stark is worth accepting Stannis’ offer to become Warden of the North, or whether he should stick to the vow he made with the Night’s Watch. Arya, meanwhile, is forced to confront the meaning of becoming “no one” as she is asked to toss away the items that belong to Arya Stark, who she is being asked to erase. Both ultimately choose the path that moves them away from their past, although both in ways that hold onto their heritage: Arya can’t toss away Needle and hides it in a rock wall for safekeeping instead, while Jon channels his father and delivers justice for Janos Slynt, suggesting each remain “Starks” even if they are renouncing the name itself in one way or another.
And it is in this context that Sansa’s storyline begins to take shape. The show has been consciously coy about Sansa and Littlefinger’s destination—we knew they weren’t heading to the Eyrie, and we heard word of a marriage proposal, but the show made it a mystery in part to torture book readers who have nothing to go on even after Martin released a Sansa chapter from The Winds Of Winter. That being said, though, even those who didn’t cheat and watch leaked episodes could predict that Sansa was heading to Winterfell: there were only so many places they could be going, plus some shots from trailers seemed to suggest Sansa was in her family crypt.
However, there is a difference between knowing someone is going somewhere and seeing it actually happen, and I’m really taken with Sansa’s return to Winterfell. Of the Stark children, Sansa has been the one who has spent the most time observing the enemy, effectively Cersei’s captive once Ned was beheaded. While Arya trains as a Faceless Man, and Bran is off-screen doing some Warg training beyond-the-Wall, and Jon takes on a leadership position, Sansa is under the tutelage of Littlefnger, being trained to be a shrewd tactician. Whereas the show has largely glossed over Sansa’s portrayal of “Alayne” at the Eyrie, it has given Sansa a different role to play: herself, having been brought back to Winterfell to marry Ramsay Bolton and solidify Roose Bolton’s hold on the North.
What I appreciate about the storyline is how it balances practicality and long-term character arcs. On the latter point, the moment where Sansa clicks into her “character” in greeting the Boltons is a great piece of work from Sophie Turner, and takes us back to the last time there was a party being greeted at Winterfell in the series’ pilot. Coming back to Winterfell has meaning, particularly given the subtle shift to Bolton sigils in the opening credits. We see a similar resonance for Theon, who is suffering through his continued service to the man who tortured him and returning to the location where he had innocent children killed in place of Bran and Rickon. Winterfell has meaning for these characters, and being able to see characters with a tie to the location return to it helps the show bring its storytelling full circle.
Moreover, it also creates a great space in which to play out the echoes of the Red Wedding. The older woman who brings “Lady Stark” to her new quarters very pointedly tells her “the North remembers,” joining Littlefinger’s speech to Sansa in positioning this arc as the rightful revenge of those wronged by the Boltons. While Theon notably avoids Sansa’s gaze, I imagine the two are on the same side here, with Ramsay and Roose as clear villains. Although neither Littlefinger nor Sansa seem aware of what Ramsay is capable of, and it would appear Sansa has too much value to the Boltons for Roose to let his son have his way, Sansa’s situation is precarious but also full of potential, creating a dramatic space in which Turner can bring Sansa’s character into her own.
And yet at the same time, it’s also just so much easier when you have multiple characters occupying the same space. The show could have started the season with Sansa at the Eyrie, but what function would that serve if they can map similar self-discovery onto Sansa’s journey back to Winterfell? While there is a version of this show where practical changes like this one read purely as logistical, “High Sparrow” avoids this fate by tapping into the show’s history and creating an arc that uses that history more poetically than the books the show is based on.
That may be a bold claim, but Martin’s story is so sprawling that it often feels like the story could never truly come full circle, especially given we’re still waiting for major convergences that Martin has been teasing for multiple books at this point. The show, by comparison, is pacing itself differently, and uses Sansa’s return to Winterfell to tighten its storytelling and pay tribute to where the show began. Whereas Martin’s return to Winterfell felt like following a war, Game Of Thrones’ return to Winterfell is about character, and creates a stable foundation for whatever comes next.
- Following Martin’s storytelling tradition more directly, Brienne and Pod share stories about their past by the campfire, and forge a stronger partnership as Brienne promises to train Pod to become a knight. It’s a nice scene, most meaningful for Brienne’s pledge to kill Stannis, who is also heading to Winterfell.
- Along similar lines: even though I have read the books, part of me still thought that Jon was going to give Slynt mercy. The way that played out—especially Jon earning Ser Alliser’s respect in the midst of it—was a nice transition point for the Wall storyline.
- Missing In Action: In the interest of establishing a new storytelling foundation at Winterfell, both Daenerys in Meereen and Jaime and Bronn on their way to Dorne are excised completely—just imagine if they had tried to work in the Ironborn this season as well.
- Can we all agree that Stannis and Davos are both helped tremendously by having people to interact with who are neither Stannis nor Davos nor Melisandre? Jon isn’t exactly Mr. Personality, but he’s a new foil, and the conversation between Davos and Jon worked particularly well for me.
- I enjoyed the detail of the Dany-inspired outfit in the brothel, particularly given how much it must have tortured Jorah.
- That was a very meaningful camera hold on the young women at Winterfell as Sansa arrived—curious to see what role they play in the weeks to come.
- “I hope it passes—what will I do in my spare time?”—given Shae’s long-term presence, the whoring Tyrion of the first season has somewhat faded from view, but I appreciated this line regardless.
- “It doesn’t matter”—that said, this line from Qyburn as the High Septon fails to recognize him got the biggest laugh of the episode. Qyburn gonna Qyburn!
- I also quite loved Pycelle’s overly vigorous defense of the High Septon’s privacy as it relates to Littlefinger’s brothel.
- “He liked men, I’m not an idiot”—glad that Brienne was finally given the chance to clarify her devotion to Renly, and remove it from notions of romantic love.
- Qyburn Gonna Qyburn: I sort of knew the show wouldn’t resist delving into Qyburn’s experiments, and I certainly knew what was under the sheet, and the way the camera lingered on Qyburn with the Mountain in the background convinced me we were about to see a Frankenstein’s monster-style moment, and I still jumped out of my seat when it happened.
The Night Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers (Explicit Book Spoilers):
- While elements of the Winterfell storyline can work more or less the same with Sansa in Jeyne’s place, up to and including Theon’s escape plan, Brienne and Pod’s presence makes me wonder what kind of scale this is going to play out on, and whether it plays out before Stannis marches south. (And I know I kind of dumped on it above, but I do like the Reek sections of A Dance With Dragons, although I think there’s more potential in Sansa and Theon’s perspectives converging).
- Right now, the biggest question mark is what’s happening with Sam, Gilly, and Maester Aemon. The threat that drove them out of the North has not been established, and this week Maester Aemon’s illness makes me think they’re playing out parts of the arc without sending them to Braavos. But we’ll see what they have in store.
- Lady Stoneheart Truther Watch: Brienne’s narrative drive has been edited to “protect the Stark girls” and “kill Stannis,” so the clarity of the Lady Stoneheart reveal is somewhat off the table. Make of that what you will.
- Mance Rayder Truther Watch: We don’t see any of the free folk this week, but Stannis does reaffirm Tormund as their leader, and you could read Stannis’ questions about how Tormund compares to Mance as preparation for the switch, but it’s still all empty speculation until we actually revisit the Wildlings as characters.