This Game Of Thrones post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. If you see spoilers, please mark them as best you can and email eadams at avclub dot com or contact Erik on Twitter, and he’ll take care of them as soon as possible. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’thappen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.
Power is the prize promised to the game of thrones’ ultimate victor. The power to rule, the power to define right from wrong, the power to mold the known world in your image. No matter how they may protest, nor matter what they may say otherwise, this is a motivating factor for any prospective Game Of Thrones royalty.
Power is a prize that’s won at the end of the game; survival is a gift given during its every turn. The gift of another chance, the gift of seeing your loved ones again, the gift of outlasting your enemies. Pain, suffering, and death are all givens for these characters, making life, and the living of that life, all the more precious. In “The Gift,” The High Sparrow speaks of the seven heavens that await the virtuous in the afterlife, but even he can’t speak from a place of authority on that subject. To pick yourself up out of the morass and live another day is a real and tangible reward, one “The Gift” believes in wholeheartedly. If it didn’t, what would be the point of coming back to this fucked-up dragon world week-in and week-out?
We keep coming back because of the survivors. Partially because the only characters you can recognize in season five are those who’ve made it through the preceding four seasons, but also because the endurance of Sansa, Brienne, Sam, Gilly, Dany, Jorah, and Tyrion suggest better things for a Westerosi future. Game Of Thrones doesn’t necessarily believe that good is destined to triumph over evil—or even believe in the existence of “good” and “evil” in the abstract—but it is powered by the triumph of the spirit. No matter what cruelty Sansa faces within the walls of Winterfell, no matter the setbacks Jorah confronts on the road to Meereen, each keeps pushing on. (“We march to victory, or we march to defeat,” surviving Baratheon brother Stannis says in “The Gift.” “But we go forward, only forward.”) They keep the candles burning, even when someone’s trying to snuff them out.
“The Gift” features a gorgeous transition to that effect, fading from an unlit window (monitored from afar by Brienne) to the flames illuminating Maester Aemon’s final moments. There’s a hopelessness to the Winterfell scenes this week, similar to that felt during season three’s stay at the Dreadfort—Ramsay’s unrelenting sadism just has that effect, I suppose. Director Miguel Sapochnik even frames Theon’s journey from Sansa’s chambers as a classic Bolton bait-and-switch, implying a trip to the Broken Tower that actually leads to Ramsay’s door. It’s a shocker, albeit an inevitable one: Reek was never going to turn on his master so quickly. Hopelessness, in this instance, is more a case of getting your hopes up too high.
And yet, the darkening conditions under Bolton rule are given some light by Sansa’s faith that her torture marriage to Ramsay is merely a temporary arrangement. She has Littlefinger’s word that the Boltons are not long for Winterfell, and after some time under his tutelage, she also has his ability for playing all the angles against her enemies. Verbally sparring with her husband, Sansa reminds him that the only thing making him Roose’s true son and Winterfell’s heir is the word of yet another bastard—Tommen Baratheon. He breaks down her defenses with the flayed display of the Starks’ friend in the North, but that’s only after Sansa surreptitiously swipes some sort of pointy-looking implement from among the Bolton arms. When she makes the theft, she’s yet to learn that she’s lost an ally, but even then, she’s thinking that the fight for survival is one she’ll have to wage on her own. That adds a neatly ironic twist to Ramsay gloating that “Our people are used to fighting in frost.”
In “The Gift,” surviving in the north means surviving in isolation. While Sansa loses one accomplice and is betrayed by another, Samwell Tarly remains at Castle Black while one friend rides into enemy territory and another wades into oblivion. Jon Snow’s sympathy for the Wildlings made it hard enough for Sam, Gilly, and li’l Sam, and the Lord Commander’s diplomatic trot with Tormund Giantsbane isn’t making things any easier. (The campaign remains unpopular, Alliser Thorne reminds us, as spoken updates on Jon’s popularity are one of the First Ranger’s main duties.) Maester Aemon’s death sets them further adrift, as the old man’s funeral is barely a memory before two crows make unwanted advances on Gilly, only to be frightened off by the combined forces of Sam The Slayer and Ghost the direwolf.
Here, as in Winterfell, there’s a “darkest before the dawn” sensation. The Night’s Watch barely sticks to its oath when its leaders are present, and the removal of Jon and Aemon leads directly to this scene of lawlessness within the walls of Castle Black. Survival here is a matter of self-determination, Sam and Gilly taking their licks from brothers Rat Stache and Five O’Clock Shadow but not backing down. Ghost scares the goons away, but he has the time to make it to the mess hall because Sam and Gilly held their attackers off. So thrilling is the rush of survival that the couple immediately sets about breaking one part of Sam’s oath. They need all the allies they can get, so they may as well make one, biologically speaking.
The plainest statement on survival comes from the sequence that gives “The Gift” its name: Jorah and Tyrion, having successfully negotiated themselves to the fighting pits, stand among several slain warriors and declare themselves to Daenerys. Jorah’s fellow fighters clumsily bludgeon each other to death, delighting the spectators, disgusting the queen, and disappointing the pit master. But the masked man who emerges from the gates mid-melee fights with skill and confidence. He fells opponents with non-fatal blows, using their own limbs and armor against them. In an arena that favors blunt force, Jorah is artful in his survival. Where the preceding violence is jump-cut brutality, his entry into the fracas plays out in relatively long, relatively smooth takes. His professionalism even halts an early exit by noted fan of professional warriors Daenerys Stormborn.
Victory in the pit and a dramatic unmasking make a fitting end to Jorah and Tyrion’s season-five picaresque. Weathering the sea, the stone men, slavers, and each other, the duo clears one last hurdle to stand before the queen. It’s convenient that all three should wind up at the very same fighting pit, but we’re at episode seven (and episode nine will almost certainly depict the battle between Stannis’ frostbitten forces and the Bolton army), so D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are working with limited storytelling real estate here. “The Gift” wraps its Meereen section before Jorah can explain what he means to achieve, but we already got his address about redemption a few episodes back. Once more, the demands of serialized storytelling must be paid heed, so the scene ends on one of those quintessential Game Of Thrones cliffhangers, in which one character drops some sort of bombshell (“My name is Tyrion Lannister”) and the camera does a slow, soap-opera zoom on the assembled players. Ramin Djawadi brings the score to a crescendo, the actors do their best take on “The Californians” (“Tyri-ahn? Whad’re you doing here?”—Emilia Clarke’s face), and we wait for things to pick back up next week.
There’s no visual reminder of the infection that’s slowly turning Jorah’s arm into a scaly stalagmite this week, but internally, that gives the character one more reason to meet with Dany ASAP. Swords can be shielded against, servitude can be talked around, but greyscale could be the only opponent Jorah doesn’t survive. And so he gives himself the gift of being in his khaleesi’s presence, knowing that such things are not granted. It’s unclear what he and Tyrion will get out of their trip to Meereen, but in bringing Dany something she can use to win the game, Jorah himself is rewarded.
On the “We go forward, only forward” front, there’s also a major development in the Red Keep: On the word of Brother Lancel, Cersei is locked up by the Faith Militant. In one of the most cathartic moments in Game Of Thrones’ history, an episode that finds Cersei rubbing her freedom in Margaery’s face ends with the Mother of Madness’ own face being blocked from view by a cell door. This is the comeuppance she’s been bucking for since the beginning of the series, a defeat more profoundly felt than the deaths of Tywin, Joffrey, or Robert because the misfortune is befalling her directly. Prior to this, the biggest defeat we’ve seen Cersei suffer involved the loss of her title—but even then, she retained the power and the control of queendom. Not even Margaery Tyrell could lay Cersei this low—it took a shoeless man in rags to pull off that feat.
Like Theon betraying Sansa, it was only a matter of time before the Faith Militant scheme backfired on Cersei. An army of fanatics has been granted unchecked and unrestrained authority, but to hear the High Sparrow tell it, it almost sounds like a positive for Westeros. His meeting with Lady Olenna is one of those instances when Game Of Thrones boldly refuses to paint in black and white: It begins by playing on our sympathies for the Tyrells, but ends with those sympathies in question. The High Sparrow is busy at work dismantling sword-and-sorcery conventions, pointing out that the protagonists of this show are, by-and-large, nobles disconnected from the struggles of the common folk. “You are the few and we are the many,” he reminds Olenna, putting him in a position that represents the vast majority of Game Of Thrones viewers.
It’s a fascinating scene, for reasons beyond pitting Emma Peel against Sam Lowry in a battle of wits. While the High Sparrow retains his air of eccentricity, he shows he’s as cunning as anyone in King’s Landing—a city that could eventually fall under his rule. (Not that he’d ever consider himself a ruler.) He’s already outfoxed the queen mother, and now his sights are set on working his way around the team that toppled a king. They’re working toward similar goals, if not for the same reasons. The Baelish-Olenna conspiracy unseated Joffrey; the High Sparrow would unseat every Lannister, every Tyrell, probably every Stark, too.
The Faith strikes at a moment when the crown is particularly weakened. Like their rivals in the North, the members of the royal family are scattered and isolated: Cersei’s arrest leaves Tommen entirely on his own, with Jaime stuck in Dorne with Myrcella, who shows no interest in returning to her homeland. The great houses of the Seven Kingdoms are in disarray, making conditions all the more suitable for a populist uprising. They have no poisoned blades at their disposal, but the Faith Militant poses a greater threat to the Lannisters than a hundred Sand Snakes.
But even the Sand Snakes are neutralized this week, behind bars like so many of the show’s main characters. Talk about having something to survive: In nearly every one of “The Gift”’s storylines, there’s someone incarcerated, in captivity, in chains, or incapacitated by the weather. “The Gift” packs a remarkable amount of plot movement for an episode in which so many characters can’t move. The weather’s getting worse, the wind whipping the snow around The Wall and Winterfell in ways that foreshadow Stannis’ frozen forces. Melisandre suggests that her king can reverse his misfortune and being laying his path to the Iron Throne if only he spilled his daughter’s blood. But that’s not a sacrifice he’s prepared to make. Survival is a gift, but being someone’s survivor can be a tragedy.
- This is the final version of tonight’s Game Of Thrones (newbies) review. Because our readers are so eager to read about and discuss the show after it airs, for the rest of season five I’ll post a review that examines a major thematic or story element of the episode, then update throughout the night with further analysis on the episode, screenshots, and stray observations. There’s always so much packed into a Game Of Thrones episode that trying to unpack it all in a timely manner can prove difficult. I hope this method will satisfy those of you who want to read and comment before you go to bed on Sundays, but still want a deeper dive into the contents of any given episode later on.
- More gorgeous overhead photography this week, with a pair of bird’s eye views surveying the wreckage of season five. First we see the body of Aemon Targaryen, the snow falling on his robes evoking the celestial bodies among which he now resides.
- After that, there’s this heartbreaking image of Littlefinger’s brothel, post-Faith Militant—as heartbreaking as a busted-up brothel can look, at least.
- Before they start insulting one another, Olenna and the High Sparrow compare aches and pains. “For me, it’s the knees. You?” “Hips.”
- “I’ll start a war if I have to.” Every kingly line from Tommen should be followed by a patronizing pat on his kingly little head.
- Two minor characters in Meereen that I’d love to learn more about: The big guy who chops through Tyrion’s chains, and the incredulous pit master. If any Game Of Thrones character has ever said “I’m getting too old for this shit,” it’s this guy:
- Fiery words from the newly imprisoned: “Look at me. Look at my face. It’s the last thing you’ll see before you die.”