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.
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.
Game Of Thrones has always been a show burdened with exposition. In the early seasons, they found ways to work necessary world-building into various circumstances, whether sexual or otherwise, as the writers needed to introduce the audience to the world of Westeros.
Such exposition has always been a point of distinction between readers and non-readers. Those who have read A Song Of Ice And Fire likely had their fill of exposition from reading Martin’s highly-detailed accounts of Westeros’ history, geography, politics, and culinary scene. The exposition wasn’t there for book readers—it was there for those who knew nothing about this world, and who needed certain information in order to be able to understand the storyline as it moved forward.
In recent seasons, the show’s use of exposition has shifted—the world has been built, and the fanbase well established, and so exposition is not deployed as often. The show could have, for example, done some expositional foreshadowing of the Faith Militant at some point earlier in the season, but the historical context is now enough of a shorthand that Cersei can quickly explain it to the High Sparrow and the show can move directly to their rampage through King’s Landing. The show still needs to set up certain historical facts and details for certain circumstances, but there’s the sense now that when the show uses exposition is it for an explicit purpose, and not just to create a general connection between viewers and the world of the series.
One such case this season has been with Dorne. When Ellaria Sand visits with the Sand Snakes in “Sons Of The Harpy,” you can sense Dave Hill’s script working overtime to ensure that the audience leaves with a clear understanding of the relationship between these women. Tyene very actively refers to Ellaria as “mother,” so as to clarify their distinct relationship, helped further by Obara’s story that includes mention of her own mother. Moreover, when asking the Sand Snakes whether or not they support her plan to use Myrcella as a form of revenge against the Lannisters, Ellaria calls for their votes individually, using their names in the process. And if that doesn’t stick, perhaps they’ll remember Nym’s use of her whip or Obara’s use of her spear as points of distinction. The scene has exposition as it relates to the plot—they intend to use Myrcella to avenge Oberyn’s death, they know Jaime is in Dorne—but it’s primarily concerned with making characters visible who will play a larger role later in the story, and giving greater depth to the new Dorne location on the opening credits map.
This exposition is fairly unnecessary to book readers—although the reduced number of Sand Snakes means that it’s good to know which ones the writers chose to keep, ultimately any fan who watched the video revealing the new cast members this season understood who was who. However, there is another significant thread of exposition in “Sons Of The Harpy” that is one of the rare cases where its presence is just as valuable to readers as it is to non-readers. At three very conscious moments in the episode, viewers are given pieces of history that flesh out characters the show has largely elided to this point, but which are crucial to a prominent fan theory. For non-readers, it’s exposition that one can presume will become relevant as the season and series progress; for readers, it’s potentially confirmation of R+L=J.
I certainly read it as confirmation, at least. For the show to have Barristan reflect on his time with Rhaegar in the streets of King’s Landing is one thing—his presence with Daenerys is based on his experience serving her family, and seeing her grow into a ruler would no doubt make him nostalgic. However, for that to happen in the same episode where Littlefinger recounts Rhaegar favoring Lyanna following a tournament despite them being either married or betrothed to others is suspicious, collecting back story for the characters as a rapid speed. But when you combine this with Stannis very casually remarking to Selyse that he doesn’t believe Ned Stark would ever father a bastard with a tavern wench, this is either the biggest troll job in television history or the showrunners have shown their hand on the subject that helped them get the job.
It’s possible to read this as the first significant “spoiler” caused from the show passing the books, but is it really a spoiler? The “R+L=J” theory is something I came to in reading about the show online—I cannot claim it occurred to me while reading the books, but when I was confronted by the theory it made perfect sense. This is not one of those “out there” fan theories that require numerous convoluted reworkings of existing knowledge—this is a clearly constructed mystery, answered in a way that both fits our understanding of the characters in question and works to connect Jon to the larger narrative and the series’ likely endgame. And so to see it moved from subtext to text here—including Melisandre noting there is “power” in Jon, and that he resists it—is not necessarily surprising, but it is still thrilling in light of Martin’s withholding of the same information.
I don’t know if any of this will have stood out to Erik or other book readers—I know at least one critic who hasn’t read the books who picked up on it, but mainly due to other people discussing the theory and the topic of Jon’s parentage in his presence. To the episode’s credit, each of the individual scenes had its own function. Selyse questioning Jon’s character based on being a bastard recurs when Tommen is verbally assaulted on his way to confront the High Sparrow, Sansa recalling Rhaegar allegedly raped and kidnapped Lyanna puts her own situation as a betrothed in the time of war into context, and we can read Barristan’s recollection of Rhaegar as a sweet moment before he gives his life—or at least very nearly gives his life, we’ll discuss in the Strays—for a Targaryen as he had been willing to do before. It seems likely that non-readers could just see these as three separate examples of the show tapping into its history to make thematic points, a strategy that has been used before and will no doubt be used again in the future.
“Sons Of The Harpy” also mixes this exposition with plenty of action. The introduction of the Faith Militant and the assault by the Sons of the Harpy are very similar sequences, each filled with blood and principled outrage. With Lancel as the exception, each play out as large mobs using violence to make a statement, in the process shifting power dynamics in King’s Landing and Meereen, respectively. One difference is that we see some of the fallout in King’s Landing, with Margaery and Cersei continuing their power play as Tommen struggles to take action to save an arrested Loras. It’s a logical diversion from the books (where Cersei had Margaery arrested for not being a virgin), taking advantage of the show’s open acknowledgement and portrayal of Loras’ sexuality to maintain the basic thrust of the story but adjust for Tommen’s older age and connected ability to consummate the marriage.
Another difference, though, is that I don’t entirely follow the logic behind Cersei’s reintroduction of the Faith Militant. Now, obviously, she’s using them as a power play, part of a larger plan to remove Margaery’s support system that’s foreshadowed in her choice to send Mace to Braavos to parlay with the Iron Bank. But whereas the High Sparrow more or less tricks Cersei into trading this for blessing Tommen in the books, here she does it willingly, despite the fact the Faith Militant proceed to rampage through the streets in Flea Bottom upending local merchants’ tables, destroying ale, and murdering patrons at Littlefinger’s brothel. The point appears to be that Cersei is willing to sacrifice her own people for the sake of having Loras arrested, which is fine, but I’m having more trouble parsing why the Faith Militant would turn to murder—versus public humiliation, as we had seen previously—this quickly.
The Sons of the Harpy have clear reasons to kill—they were formed by men whose city and livelihood were taken away from them, and they feel they must shed blood to get it back. But why are the Faith Militant murdering sinners in Littlefinger’s brothel? There’s one in particular who has this devilish grin on his face as he murders someone, which does not seem in line with anything that we had seen from the High Sparrow or even from the Sparrows previously. Although exploring the morality of Game Of Thrones is an interesting exercise, and using the considerable time the show has spent in that brothel as a point of conflict is productive, the Faith Militant’s actions felt unmotivated except by the very basic moral stance the show had vaguely attached to them previously.
Motivation is an important detail for Game Of Thrones, and it’s one the show often solves through exposition. It’s also something that has always been a struggle for Stannis Baratheon, who has been motivated by a birthright and the supposed intention of the Lord of Light. The exposition for Stannis’ claim to the throne was a very simple fact: All of Cersei’s children are Jaime’s, and therefore Stannis is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. And frankly, that’s a boring narrative. Melisandre’s presence helped, theoretically, except it only served to make Stannis seem more boring by comparison. Everything we learned to justify the character’s coldness—the wife with fertility issues, the daughter with greyscale, the partnership with Davos—only served to make him seem colder, and ever since the Battle of Blackwater cutting to Stannis has felt like a story off in its own world.
Bringing Stannis to Castle Black has been helpful simply through giving him new people to talk to, but his scene with Shireen here is by far the most I’ve ever cared about this version of the character. Although Littlefinger notes that Stannis is a gifted military commander, the character’s value is not going to be determined by his march to Winterfell. It begins with a simple gesture: a belief that his daughter, “deformed” and not the son that he may have wanted, is worth fighting for. Although the show may still have big plans for greyscale, and we could count Stannis’ story about the Valyrian “Stone Men” as its own form of long-term exposition, this was the first time Stannis has felt starkly human, and in which I’ve understood why he was fighting beyond the fact of his birthright, or his perhaps misplaced faith in Melisandre. Watching him have no idea how to handle Shireen’s hug was endearing and light-hearted, something we’ve never been able to say about Stannis previously, and something that serves the character and the storyline at the Wall well.
It also speaks to a larger thread of parenthood that pulls R+L=J back to the forefront. If last week’s episode focused on the Stark children, this week we saw various parents—Ellaria, Stannis, Barristan as a surrogate father figure to Rhaegar and Dany alike—confronting their relationships with their children as reflections on themselves. It lies at the core of Jaime’s trip to Dorne as well, as Bronn raises his eyebrows at Jaime’s claim he’s risking his life as a one-armed, highly recognizable man to save his “niece.” Although it remains to be seen how well the show has established these various bonds through exposition such that their convergence here lands with non-readers, “Sons Of The Harpy” makes good use of them overall, and offers a rare case of an episode where exposition might be the single most-exciting detail.
- There was a rogue commenter who tried to spoil that someone dies at the end of the fourth episode after pirating it, but do we think Barristan Selmy is really dead? The showrunners warned of characters dying who have yet to die in the books, but Grey Worm stops the Son of the Harpy from slitting his throat, which would seem to leave his survival a distinct possibility. (Edit: We have an answer, if you’d prefer to have the cliffhanger resolved.)
- Really curious what’s happening in the header image on this review, as it would appear to suggest there was a part of that scene that played out before Ellaria’s arrival that was cut from the episode.
- Given the “Dad joke” he lays down at the Small Council, I can safely say that I enjoy this version of Mace Tyrell, if only for Qyburn’s reaction to said joke.
- As much as I will continue to argue that Melisandre’s nudity is much more purposeful than the show’s broader engagement with T&A, I didn’t entirely see why she was seducing Jon, if I’m being honest.
- I’m really appreciating the new Margaery/Tommen dynamic: whereas in the books she did nothing but coddle him, here he’s old enough that she initially tries to treat him as an adult, before realizing her mistake and shifting to a coddling approach.
- Opening Credits Watch: Dorne makes its long-awaited arrival to the opening credit sequence, although notably it is the first of such appearances to denote a Kingdom in its entirety, versus a specific city or landmark. I guess they decided that they’ll be spending enough time outside of Sunspear and the Water Gardens that it makes more sense to just call it “Dorne” and be done with it.
- I appreciated that they used the prostitute who helped the Sons of the Harpy kill the Unsullied in the premiere as a plant in this attack, and didn’t spend too much time calling attention to it—I like being rewarded for paying too much attention to television shows.
- I also enjoyed that Grey Worm loses his helmet mid-way through the fight, which is both something that could happen and makes it way easier to turn into a hero fight as opposed to a generic battle between two forces.
- The fight choreography in that scene was fun, but I preferred the less chaotic work in Bronn and Jaime’s fight against the Dornish patrol. Jaime instinctively and accidentally using his golden hand was inspired, and Bronn’s general badassness is as great as ever.
- The episode actually opens with Jorah and Tyrion, but they play a very minor role in the episode: as much as I enjoyed Tyrion annoying Jorah into taking out his gag and then tormenting him until Jorah backhand slaps him, it mainly just confirmed which Queen Jorah’s taking him to. It’s Dany! We already knew that.
- Programming Note: There’s a good chance that there will be no more screeners this season, so reviews will take a bit of time each week from this point forward.
The Night Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers (explicit spoilers for future events):
- Well, I guess we can safely say Arya is killing Meryn Trant instead of Dareon, which fits given he’s remained on her list (while others have drifted away). This also pretty much confirms that members of the Night’s Watch are not showing up in Braavos any time soon.
- I know we’re discussing Brienne potentially killing Stannis given her monologue last week, but with confirmation that Melisandre is planning to travel to Winterfell with Stannis, I wonder if that’s the showdown we should be waiting for in this instance.
- Lady Stoneheart Truther Watch: Nothing much to report this week with Brienne off-screen, but one wonders if—given the obvious exposition for R+L=J—we’d have gotten something more explicit if it was coming this season (or ever).
- Mance Rayder Truther Watch: Nothing to report here either—the Wildlings have been out-of-sight, out-of-mind in the past few weeks at the Wall.