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Game Of Thrones takes place in a world that’s probably centuries away from any sort of global communications (or even a non-avian postal system), but news, information, and legends still manage to travel between the Seven Kingdoms. They can be carried by a raven, like Cersei’s summons for Littlefinger in “High Sparrow.” They can travel in stories told to one listener (like Pod learning the origin story of Brienne’s affections for Renly) or many (the red priestess of Volantis preaching the good word of Daenerys). Devices like these help bring Westeros and the world beyond it down to an understandable scale. They also lend plausibility to the idea of Essosi johns wanting to spend a night with the Mother of Dragons—or a facsimile thereof.
The common folk of Game Of Thrones “know” the series’ main characters with a familiarity that we might treat our own public figures. It’s an elementary analogy—they’re politicians, celebrities, and icons in their own right—but one that “High Sparrow” uses to great effect. Hear the crowds chanting “We love you Queen Margaery!” during the procession to the royal wedding. Heed Varys’ warning that Tyrion will be recognized, even in Volantis. Consider the value the episode and its characters place on something as fickle and arbitrary as a surname.
After meditating on leadership and power in season five’s first two episodes, Game Of Thrones turns to the most down-to-earth of its thematic pillars in “High Sparrow”: Family. Specifically one family, for most of its middle section: This week’s installment places an emphasis on the heirs to House Stark, one of whom embraces the family name and two of whom cast it off. When Tywin Lannister was still alive, claiming to be a Stark was a death sentence. Now Stannis uses the name as collateral in his negotiations with Jon Snow, and at least one resident of Winterfell declares “The North remembers” to Sansa upon her homecoming.
The North remembers the deeds and the guardianship of the Starks, and the North colors the proceedings of “High Sparrow.” Even scenes that take place away from Winterfell and The Wall carry those location’s signature palettes and chilly atmosphere. Arya’s new home in The House Of Black And White is dark, dingy, and stony, not too far removed from the chambers of Lord Commander Jon Snow or the confines of the Bolton-rebuilt Winterfell. It’s a significant break from the scenes that bookend the episode, which opens with the reds and golds of King’s Landing and concludes in the coastal sunshine of Volantis. It’s a procession that establishes the ascent of the Stark name and the decline of the Lannisters’ stock.
Jon and Sansa are both privy to these shifting fortunes, but only the latter acts upon it. “High Sparrow” presents a curious arc for the eldest Stark daughter: Once more, she’s forced into a power-consolidating marriage, albeit it one that could put her back in control of her ancestral home. Marrying the son of her brother’s murderer is an additional twist of the knife, but since this is post-“Mockingbird” Sansa we’re talking about, she’s packing her own cutlery. The pending betrothal marks the return of Westeros’ most eligible bachelor, Ramsay Bolton, who’s taken to flaying disobedient subjects alive and displaying their skinned corpses like hogs in a butcher’s shop. Not all of the Boltons’ Winterfell renovations count as improvements.
But in relying on the Starks’ renown and prominence, Sansa also puts herself in a situation where she must give up the family name. Is she still a Stark at heart if she’s a Bolton by marriage? Her sister’s trials in The House Of Black And White indicate “Yes.” There’s much intrigue and mystery to be wrung from this new setting, but the ceaseless sweeping and the cryptic riddles of Jaqen H’gar bring the sensation of Arya banging her head against the wall to the experience of watching “High Sparrow”—and not in a good way.
It feels contradictory to write those words a week after praising “The House Of Black And White” for its ambiguity, but whereas Arya’s scenes in that episode came off like a mystery, these ones feel more like a taunt. It’s no small feat translating a character’s frustrations in this manner, but the House Of Black And White sequences this week bear too much resemblance to video-game dead ends. To connect Game Of Thrones to another popular fantasy franchise, if season five was The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, H’gar would be the laughing raccoon at the edge of the Mysterious Wood. There’s satisfaction in halting the damn raccoon’s damn riddles by sprinkling him with some damn magic powder (i.e. dropping Arya’s possessions in the sea), but that satisfaction is diluted by the wheel-spinning that precedes it.
Arya’s season-five arc appears to be one that the writers need to stretch in order to keep it going. Fortunately, there are other developments within “High Sparrow” that move at a more rapid clip. Jon Snow’s promotion makes for one of the livelier visits to The Wall in recent memory, strategically keeping one enemy close while sending another to the chopping block. Executions are becoming a regular occurrence at Castle Black, but the beheading of Janos Slynt still sends a clear signal: Jon Snow may be understanding, but he will suffer no insubordination. He is resolute in his decision-making, an implication of the execution that’s intended for Stannis as much as it is the members of the Night’s Watch.
The end of Janos’ watch seems an obvious climax for the episode, but it’s a mere prelude to the introduction of Jonathan Pryce as “High Sparrow”’s titular character. (His followers are extremists, but the High Sparrow appears reasonable enough, an eccentric philosopher who casts quite the spell on Cersei.) The true climax arrives when Tyrion makes the ill-advised decision to leave the carriage, putting him in the crosshairs of a disheveled, eager-to-redeem-himself Jorah Mormont.
Because he didn’t see the head that was delivered to his sister last week, Tyrion tells Varys that he’ll just be “one more drunken dwarf” among the residents of Volantis. But nobody would ever mistake Tyrion for a Faceless Man: Partially out of intoxication, and partially out of lust, he can’t help but be himself in public and in the brothel. (A Lannister in the streets and a Lannister in the sheets.) He sarcastically dismisses the red priestess’ sermon about Dany, he flexes his easygoing charm and confidence while chatting up a prostitute. Even as he runs from his family members, he can’t help but leverage the family name for a good screw: “I always pay my debts,” he says in the brothel, slyly alluding to the Lannister motto. “I’m well known for it.”
Within this episode of Tyrion And Varys: No Reservations, “High Sparrow” delivers its sharpest points on names and identity. Tyrion can’t disguise himself or his parentage—not that he puts much effort into it. The Lion isn’t a brand like those worn on the faces of the Volantene slaves, but it might be more difficult to cast off. After Varys runs down the identifying and degrading marks of the city’s slave trade—“flies for dung shovelers, hands for builders, tears for whores”—he and his traveling companion are treated to an address from a woman of faith who’s become more than the tear on her left cheek. There are traits, duties, and expectations imprinted on all of these characters—not all of them so easy to see.
Jorah Mormont wears his displeasure for Targaryen role play pretty evidently, though. He’s the Members Only Guy of “High Sparrow”’s final scene, sharing a physical space with Tyrion and Varys without any obvious overlap in their stories. They overlap before the cut to black, though there’s enough ambiguity in Jorah’s words (his first of the season, which are also the last words of “High Sparrow”): “I’m taking you to the queen.” Does he mean the former queen who’s seeking his captive, or the pretender to the throne who cast Jorah out in season four?
One more scene like this and it’s a pattern: Like Brienne and Pod last week, Jorah coincidentally crosses paths with a fugitive from King’s Landing—though, unlike Brienne and Pod, his intent is malicious and his pursuit successful. A man seeking redemption comes across the one quantity guaranteed to get him what he wants: Someone whose name is more notorious than his own.
That’s the thing about a name. Sometimes it needs to be cleared; other times it needs to be avenged. And as Game Of Thrones moves forward, sometimes it can be abandoned in the hope of starting all over again.
- Here’s something worth celebrating: “High Sparrow” features a Game Of Thrones wedding that doesn’t have a body count. As such, the Tommen-Margaery nuptials merit approximately 30 seconds of screentime, though they do lead to the couple’s best exchange of dialogue since the Ser Pounce Interruption: Says Tommen, like a teenager who’s just consumated his marriage, “This is all I want to do all day, everyday for the rest of my life.”
- On the subject of changing names: Alfie Allen makes his season five debut in “High Sparrow,” as Reek runs errands around Theon’s old Winterfell stomping grounds and avoids eye contact with Sansa. Regardless of whether or not Sansa becomes a Bolton, an affiliation with the family will affect her identity to a lesser degree than Theon’s time among the Boltons has.
- What does Qyburn have under that sheet? WHAT DOES QYBURN HAVE UNDER THAT SHEET?!? Whatever it is, it’s made creepier by Qyburn’s not-so-soothing words: “Easy, friend.”