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.

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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.

As Stannis struggles like Napoleon invading Russia during his march on Winterfell, Davos counsels him to retreat. In refusing, Stannis utters a very simple mantra: “We go forward—only forward.” This is echoed by Littlefinger later in “The Gift,” when he tells Olenna that “the future is all that’s worth discussing.”

This philosophy is an important one in the context of Game Of Thrones. This is a show that is constantly moving forward in one way or another, marching toward an uncertain narrative endpoint. Although some stories may move forward faster than others, and some could point to the pace of this season in particular as being slower than others given the lack of an early-season climax similar to “Dracarys,” there is no single storyline that displays a group of characters in a stable situation twiddling their fingers. This world is alive, meaning that those who wish to stay alive always need to stay two steps ahead.

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This is what necessitates many of the changes in the books, which tend to think side-to-side instead of forward. We see this in the shift in the circumstances surrounding Aemon’s death, which happens here at Castle Black and with very little in the way of ceremony. In the books, it comes amidst a lengthy journey, spurred on by elements that have been completely cut from the television narrative (and transposed here onto Shireen, which we’ll get to later on). Here, Aemon gradually grows weaker over the course of a few episodes, has some final memories of Aegon (or “Egg”), and then fades away as Sam and Gilly watch over him.

But although Aemon’s death is followed by the traditional rites and funeral pyre, and thus has a degree of ceremony, its real function is to push the story forward. In the books, Aemon’s death is used as a spark to gently push Sam’s character in a particular direction that I won’t spoil here in case the show intends to use that story later. In this instance, however, Aemon’s death puts Sam in danger by removing all of his friends, after which point two men take a pass at Gilly and rough up a defensive Sam until Ghost arrives. Then, as Gilly helps Sam recover from his wounds, they share a brief kiss, and then Sam has his first sexual experience.

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We can talk about Sam’s sex noises in the strays, but this is a case where Benioff and Weiss have taken a specific event from the books and turned it into more of a direct catalyst. In the books. Aemon’s death is part of a larger arc, an inevitability drawn out and played as a sort of bittersweet moment that does also eventually lead to Sam and Gilly making love for the first time. Here, though, such an event is used as a spark for something more, establishing a shifting of the guard at Castle Black and marking Sam’s reemergence as a more significant character after being relegated to Jon’s sidekick once the latter returned from his excursion north of the Wall. It does not have the exact same effect given the lack of context around it, but it has a more direct impact on the storytelling, and on what appears to be remaining a central storytelling location in Jon’s absence.

It’s also one of a number of stories that play on the nature of masculinity. Sam’s bravery—he got knocked down, but he got up again, you’re never going to keep him down (unless Ghost is otherwise occupied)—in the fight is echoed by the question he poses to Gilly when she suggests he shouldn’t have stood up for her: “What kind of man would I be?” Sam has always been concerned about his masculinity as the unwanted son of an unfeeling father, and so it makes sense he would risk his own life in order to be the chivalrous “Sam the Slayer” he wants to be for her. He wants to be the hero, and for at least a night he gets to feel like one, with Gilly walking him through the steps and taking control of the situation.

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Gilly is a complex character to be taking part in this scene. On the one hand, she was just nearly raped by two men—likely convicted rapists—and yet she soon after makes love to Sam. At first, especially in light of a week of hashing out Sansa’s situation, it’s hard not the read the show glossing over the attempted sexual assault. But on reflection, Gilly is all too used to what nearly happened to her: she is a survivor of sexual assault, and she was also living in that environment for so long that the encounter she had with those men is just the world she has always known. She may not have desired to sell her body during her time in Mole Town, and she certainly did not want to be raped, but that doesn’t mean that she is incapable of understanding sex as both a weapon of violence and as an act of love. Sex and violence are closely linked to Gilly’s world, creating blurred lines she has become used to in different ways compared to other characters.

Sex in Westeros is all about blurred lines, as evident by Ramsay turning Sansa into his sexual object. On the one hand, Sansa is his wife, and there is an understanding that husbands and wives will have sex; on the other hand, he is imprisoning her in a room, and expecting her to serve his needs on every night, regardless of her own desires and regardless of whether or not he wants her to. Marital rape is still rape, but it comes without the same criminal status, and without the clear stigma within the world of the show (and in some parts of our world, sadly). And whereas Gilly has become used to this world through her time in Craster’s lawless keep, it is a new and horrifying reality for Sansa, and something that she came to fear from close calls in the past. As Ramsay works out his own masculinity issues—poked by Sansa, who mentions the would-be threat to his claim growing in Walda—on her every night, Sansa is forced to live very frighteningly in her present, imagining a dark and dire future.

It is hard not to see Sansa’s story here in the light of the reaction to the debate over the last week regarding this storyline. (For a counterpoint to my concern over the storytelling choice, see The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg). One of the concerns I didn’t discuss last week—we’ll continue to follow those concerns as the story progresses—is the way the rape could be seen as part of Theon’s arc as opposed to Sansa’s. And when the episode begins, that concern—which I had just discussed with a colleague hours before—seems well-founded as Sansa becomes the damsel locked in the tower, sending Theon to be her savior and light the candle that will bring help as the kind old woman promised. But whereas Sansa makes this plea to Theon by appealing to his humanity—and, in calling attention to his father and his being the last surviving son, his masculinity—there is no more humanity in Reek. And so he goes to Ramsay instead, the old woman is flayed alive and dies, and Sansa is once more trapped in a tower but with a clear need to find a different solution on her own.

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Game Of Thrones’ investment in gender roles is crucial to its storytelling, but it also tends to struggle at times through lack of context. If I were to describe Sansa as a sexual prisoner depending on men to help save her, that sounds some alarm bells—but when you consider it’s a woman waiting outside the gates to save her, and when you see how she works over Ramsay psychologically in their walk on the battlements, you see the show wants to separate Sansa’s larger arc from her situation. It wants us to see the forest for the trees, and to know that there is a future for this character, and that her future will not be as Ramsay Bolton’s abused wife. But it can be tough to depict this without having access to Sansa’s inner monologue, something the books could use to show resolve where the show must use dialogue or subtle acting that can often be lost in editing and the need to cram six or seven narratives into a given episode.

This is particularly true with the episode’s biggest statement regarding gender in Tyene Sand’s seduction of Bronn through their cell doors. There is a reading of this scene where it shows Tyene using her sexuality to gain power over Bronn, having already bested him on the battlefield with her poisoned blade. And although that’s certainly a legitimate reading, it’s a difficult one where the visual component of the scene is so heavily invested in the male gaze, taking on Bronn’s first-person perspective. It becomes more difficult to read the scene as a critique of the male gaze when it deploys it so shamelessly, and when the deconstruction of that gaze comes through the impact of the poison rather than a reframing of the scene and the bodies within.

But even if we move past the way the scene is framed, a reading that sees Tyene’s display of sexuality as empowering suffers from a lack of motivation. Whereas Melisandre—the other character to very clearly use nudity for power—has clear religious and spiritual and shadow baby-related reasons to strip down and disarm her opponents, we know nothing about Tyene. And for those who read the books, we knew a lot more about Ariane, whose use of sexuality in seducing Arys Oakheart seems to me to be the inspiration behind this particular characterization. We had the opportunity to read through Ariane’s motivations for her actions, and understand her larger goals—what was the point of Tyene’s display? Why was her sexuality crucial to her show of power over Bronn if he was already on his deathbed without her antidote? Without such details, it’s hard for this scene to transcend the gaze it consciously engages in, making it a failed critique if it was intended as one.

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Dorne’s story as a whole struggles from zero forward momentum: while Jaime has a brief conversation with Myrcella, it does nothing to clarify the storyline’s direction, especially in light of an episode where two major story events unfold. In King’s Landing, Cersei’s fall is finally in motion, although with a crucial shift in storytelling. Speaking again to the show’s desire for catalysts, Cersei’s undoing comes less from her hubris here, and more from the scheming of Littlefinger and Olenna. The increased role for Olenna makes for some great sparring between Jonathan Pryce and Diana Rigg, but it also works to hold people other than Cersei responsible for her downfall. Whereas the books portrayed her as an incompetent ruler who made choice after choice that led to her arrest by the Faith for her crimes, here it is simply her past coming back to haunt her: the boy she used to kill her husband emerges from the shadows, drawn out by those who wish to see an end to the Lannister reign.

This is notably preceded by a scene of Cersei comforting Tommen, who is experiencing his own crisis of masculinity as the boy king who can’t even keep his queen out of prison. It’s a meaningful companion to Cersei’s scene with Tommen on the Iron Throne during the Battle of Blackwater Bay, each focused on framing Cersei’s actions in the interest of love for her family. Everything she has done has been for her family and her children, or at least that’s what she tells herself. I will be interested in how the show lays out the nature of Cersei’s crimes, and how much the show’s efforts to explore her point-of-view this season—including starting with the flashback—works to reframe the fallout from her arrest.

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As that story was clearly moving forward with Littlefinger promising a “gift” of a young man to Olenna, I started to wonder about the speed at which Dany’s storyline would be merging with Jorah and Tyrion’s. When the episode turns to Meereen, it seems a thematically appropriate investigation of Daario’s masculine panic in light of Dany marrying Hizdahr. It even introduced the thematically relevant notion that “everyone has a choice,” which we could extend to Melisandre’s desire to give Shireen to the flames, or Theon’s decision to turn Sansa’s candle over to Ramsay. And when we see Jorah and Tyrion sold to the highest bidder at the auction, it seems plausible that these could be the only two scenes we see in preparation for future events.

“The Gift” knows that book readers are waiting for Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen to meet for the first time. Benioff and Weiss know that when the notion of “going forward” is raised, their meeting is among the first things to spring to mind given the way the books have withheld this moment. And so it’s sly and smart to have it happen out of the blue: Dany wasn’t supposed to be there; Jorah and Tyrion weren’t supposed to be fighting; the brute was supposed to stop Tyrion was cutting his chains instead of helping him. There were so many moments where I thought that this was going to be a close call, but it turns out it wasn’t: the storyline unexpectedly ends with Tyrion stepping out and revealing himself as Jorah’s gift, bringing the two houses together for the first time in decades (with a necessary R+L=J asterisk).

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It’s an exciting moment in an episode that has a lot to handle—in committing to “going forward,” elements like Stannis potentially sending Shireen to a fiery death end up a drop in the bucket. With only Braavos sitting out for “The Gift,” there is an immense amount of ground to cover, and there are some storylines and scenes—Dorne, in particular—that suffer as a result. However, Game Of Thrones is at its best when it has momentum on its side, and the two climaxes that bring the episode to its conclusion felt both worth the wait and well-developed by what came before. As the rest of the stories catch up in the next few weeks, I remain hopeful the pieces will fall into place to pay off the strong work scattered throughout the season’s first half.

Stray observations:

  • I’m super disappointed this episode wasn’t just one long flashback about Brandon’s Gift, for the record.
  • Natalie Dormer doesn’t get a whole lot of time to portray the impact imprisonment has had on Margaery, but she makes the most of it in calling out Cersei’s lies. It was a scene made all the better knowing what it was likely leading to.
  • Alliser notes that Sam is “losing all his friends,” which speaks to the shifting character dynamics as characters die—Cersei losing her husband, son, and father—or as they leave, as when Jon and Dolorous Edd leave for Hardhome. That’s part of why you can never really stop in a given moment, as the moment keeps changing unexpectedly.
  • Lots to love about The Queen of Thorns vs. The High Sparrow, of course, but I particularly loved him diagnosing her inability to find his hidden motive. He’s not out for anything but faith, which is utterly terrifying.
  • Much as the occupation narratives of Meereen were highlighted this season, the religious elements of the Faith Militant have been replaced with a more socially relevant 1% vs. 99% framework that works, but felt perhaps a bit overemphasized here, rhetorically speaking.
  • I really expected Myrcella’s discussion with Jaime to end with an exasperated Tracy Jordan-style “You’re not my Dad!”
  • Let’s (Tastefully) Talk About Sex: I really appreciated that in an episode that worked to harden Sam’s personality (did you think I was going to say something else?), that completely breaks down when he is overcome by his first sexual experience. Works to maintain the character’s innocence while also ultimately marking a transition point for the character.
  • Let’s keep an eye out for Chekhov’s Bag of Dragonglass, shall we?
  • I thought it was interesting that the “Previously On” didn’t actually include a clip of Cersei sleeping with Lancel—maybe we’ll get that next week?
  • Olenna calling Olyvar a “perfumed ponce” is just such a beautiful use of alliteration.
  • Real talk: While we talked about the vagaries of Littlefinger’s plan last week, it seems to me this week Doran Martell has some issues. Why is Jaime being held in a lavish suite? What diplomacy is happening here? I wish we had a scene with him to clarify even some of this, but without it the Dorne plot just ends up a sexualized question mark.
  • Loved the shot of Theon walking through the Winterfell courtyard shot through the battlements—the snowstorm really brought out the best in that set.

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The Night Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers (explicit spoilers for all books):

  • Not exactly subtle foreshadowing of Cersei’s punishment when the High Sparrow was all “strip this” and “strip that” in his takedown, but I’m intensely curious to see how the scene is played visually.
  • I had been presuming—I didn’t see the set photos—that Tyrion and Jorah’s meeting with Dany would be during the Grand Games, at which point Drogon would interrupt and keep them from fully connecting. And so my mind turns to what exactly is going to play out during the games at this point.
  • On the one hand, there is legitimately no reason that the show couldn’t kill Shireen given the completely marginal role she plays in the books (where it feels like she exists primarily to plant the greyscale seeds). But on the other hand, do we think the show would go there, really?
  • Mance Rayder Truther Watch: I believe we saw Rattleshirt in the promos for next week, but I don’t think that’s really enough to say there’s significant signs of life here (especially with the Shireen storyline playing out elsewhere, drawing Melisandre away from the Wildlings altogether.
  • Lady Stoneheart Truther Watch: Brienne—I think she’s still the important character here—is glimpsed briefly standing watch outside of Winterfell, and it’s plausible she’s denied her convergence with Stannis and meets Lady Stoneheart’s judgment instead. But I’m still doubtful.

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