Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 3 – High Sparrow

“There is but one god. A girl knows his name. And all men know his gift.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After two weeks of political wrangling and intrigue, it was a more mystical episode of Game of Thrones this week. The focus was very much on religion, and how it intersects with the machinations of power we’ve already seen. To this end, while the intrigue was still very much ongoing, we got various musings on the various religions of this fantasy world – the Seven, the Many Faced God, and the Lord of Light, not to mention glancing references to the Old Gods of the weirwood.

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Up until now, the show’s been fairly reticent about the religions of its world, which is an interesting divergence from George RR Martin’s source material in real medieval history. In the real medieval Europe, which Westeros roughly approximates, and from which many of the plot points are appropriated, the Christian Church was all-powerful. More powerful even than kings, since while a king could have you killed, the Church could decide where your immortal soul then went for the rest of eternity. As a result, kings (until perhaps Henry VIII of England) were no more above the Church’s power than any ordinary commoner.

In Westeros, the Church has been shown to have very little of that kind of influence. The religion of the Seven appears to be led by the High Septon, a sort of combination of the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, but with little of the power of either. He’s appointed by the Crown, serves at their sufferance – and can be removed at a royal whim, as we saw here.

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A couple of weeks ago, we briefly saw the return of Cersei’s cousin and some time lover, the callow but cute Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simon). Wounded in the Battle of the Blackwater, he’d turned to a puritan cult version of the Seven, who call themselves the Sparrows and eschew all worldly goods and temptations. Lancel’s brief appearance then seemed little more than window dressing, but it’s now clear that these ‘Sparrows’ are going to have a significant role to play in the plot.

They popped up again this week, in greater numbers, to drag the current, ineffectual High Septon from his diversions at Littlefinger’s brothel and humiliate him by parading him naked through the streets of King’s Landing. His outraged pleas to Cersei rewarded him with nothing more than a one way trip the Red Keep’s dungeons – after all, what use is a tame priest if he has no clerical credibility?

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It was a bold move of Cersei to then seek out the leader of the Sparrows, the so-called ‘High Sparrow’ to offer him the post instead. Jonathan Pryce gave the role some gravitas, as an earnest true believer who seemingly wants to do good, feeding the poor and even giving up his shoes for them. However, I suspect Cersei may have made a grave error of judgement putting him in a position to judge the Kingdoms – and herself. The religion of the Seven seems to have very similar rules to those of Christianity – and if that’s the case, the goings on in the court of King’s Landing are most certainly not going to be met with approval.

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And the goings on are most certainly still going on. Most important was the marriage of King Tommen to the deceptively sweet Margaery Tyrell, who’s become Cersei’s deadliest rival. For a wonder, this was a royal wedding which ended up with no fatalities, and the marriage was even consummated – the showrunners have, presumably for plot reasons, aged Tommen somewhat from the prepubescent boy in the books. His role has also been increased; in the books he’s little more than a vaguely sketched puppet of his mother, but the Tommen we saw here was a character in his own right.

He’s no Tywin though, or even a Joffrey. As was made clear in a clever scene in his wedding bed, he really is a guileless boy, even if he now thinks he’s a man. He took Margaery’s sickly sweetness at face value, while to the viewer it was an obvious attempt to usurp his mother’s influence over the malleable young king. Cersei knows it too, but her attempts to regain Tommen’s favour fell on the deaf ears of a teenager in love. She had a beautifully barbed scene with Margaery where both exuded the kind of sweetness and light only shown by women who truly hate one another.

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“I wish we had some wine for you, but it’s a little early in the day for us,” Margaery smiled; plainly Cersei’s rather excessive drinking is common knowledge. It was a taut scene with Cersei trying – and failing – to retain her dignity and power, while Margaery, for the moment, has the upper hand. Natalie Dormer has clearly learned from her previous role as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors how to play this sort of thing, and was more than a match for Lena Headey’s increasingly sour Cersei.

Over at Braavos, religion was back on the menu. Indeed it seems central to the plot of Arya’s uncertain apprenticeship with Jaqen H’ghar and the Faceless Men, which sounds like a really scary 60s beat group. Jaqen and his death cult worship the ‘Many Faced God’, which appears to combine aspects of all the other religions we’ve seen so far in the show. And his religion actually has some provenance – after all, we’ve already seen him change his face twice in the blink of an eye. In the books, this role is taken by an elderly priest, and it was a clever bit of misdirection to have him appear thus at first. But I really like Tom Wlaschiha as Jaqen, and it’s a nice bit of continuity to have him assume the role.

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Another religion that has actual miracles is the worship of Rh’Llor, the Lord of Light. Its most prominent practitioner, Melisandre, was absent this week, but let’s not forget, she can give birth to the Smoke Monster out of Lost at will. We saw another Red Priestess this week when Tyrion and Varys finally arrived at Volantis, bitching like an old married couple. Whoever this priestess was, she was preaching that Daenerys Targaryen (also absent this week) was some kind of “saviour”, much to Tyrion’s cynicism. He might find out first hand though, courtesy of a surprise reappearance by the disgraced Ser Jorah Mormont. But when he told Tyrion, “I’m taking you to the Queen”, was Dany the queen he meant, or was it the vengeful Cersei?

I’m not sure what kind of religion the Guild of Maesters has, if any – they seem to be more of a sort of alchemical guild of apothecaries. Anton Lesser has been quietly infiltrating the Small Council as the disgraced Maester Qyburn, drummed out of the Guild for being the Maester version of Dr Mengele. But whether it’s magic or science, he’s up to something very fishy in his Frankenstein-style lab in the cellars of the Red Keep. That twitching figure under a shroud was rather disturbing; I wonder who or what it is?

Outisde of mystical considerations, the political intrigue continues to… intrigue, as Littlefinger popped up at Winterfell to hand the reluctant Sansa over as bride-to-be for smiling nutjob Ramsay Bolton. Iwan Rheon was a little more subdued than usual as Ramsay this week, presumably because even he is cowed by his more level-headed, if no less ruthless, father Roose.

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Skulking in the background was Alfie Allen, back as Theon – or Reek, as I guess he now is. The direction made it ambiguous as to whether he is now so beaten as to be little more than an animal, or whether he had some ulterior motive in eavesdropping on Ramsay and Roose’s conversation. He certainly seemed to recognise Sansa, and to take care that she didn’t see him – hardly the actions of a totally beaten man.

Sex and Violence

The show as back to its usual form on both of these gratuitous staples after its surprising restraint last week. The High Septon’s trip to the brothel had him picking from a crowd of nude female devotees; “Two costs extra, sir, whispered Olyvar, actually wearing clothes himself for a wonder:

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Tyrion’s trip to the brothel in Braavos showed us that Dany Targaryen is so popular that not only is she considered a saviour, she’s a sex symbol. One of the local whores was evidently making a lot of money by dressing as her, though I’m pretty sure the real Dany has a backside on her dress:

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Gore-wise, the camera lingered lovingly on the flayed victims of Ramsay Bolton’s latest tantrum, which was apparently an attempt to motivate loyalty from the Lords of the North. As his father sternly advised, “you cement an alliance through marriage, not by peeling a man’s skin off”.

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And top marks have to go Jon Snow’s extremely satisfying beheading of the snivelling Janos Slynt, who, let’s face it, has been asking for it for a while now. Usually when a beheading is shown, we don’t see the deed itself; even with Ned Stark, we just saw the crowd’s horrified reaction and the resultant headless corpse. Here, though, we saw the whole thing, in a disturbingly convincing effect. I’m assuming they didn’t actually decapitate Dominic Carter:

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Choice dialogue this week

Cersei, discussing Margaery with Tommen: “Do you think she’s intelligent? I can’t quite tell.”

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Tyrion, on being told it’s good luck to rub a dwarf’s head; “It’s even better luck to suck a dwarf’s cock.”

Arya, being unexpectedly shoved by another acolyte: “Cunt!”

This was a livelier episode than the first two. Even though new plotlines are still being set up, some of the seeds sown in the earlier eps are beginning to bear fruit, notably the Sparrows and the beginning of Arya’s apprenticeship as a mystical assassin. The dialogue and performances were as impeccable as usual, and if you’re a fan of the show’s utterly gratuitous use of sex and violence, you’d have been pleased to see that back too. But as a student of history, and an atheist who’s fascinated by anthropology, it was the examination of the show’s fantasy religions that intrigued me most. Still, though, let’s hope for a bit more action next week…