Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 4 – The Sons of the Harpy

“Wars teach people to obey the sword, not the gods.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After some patient scene setting and a week of musing on the mystical, this week Game of Thrones seemed to really pick up the pace, with the scheming and the character depth balanced by some real (and really gory) action. Having set plotlines running in those first few weeks, they’re now starting to pay off with some interesting consequences.

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Chief among them was the bloody unrest in both King’s Landing and Meereen, as religious fanatics the Sparrows and insurgent conservatives Sons of the Harpy started their campaigns in earnest. Last week, we saw that the so-called ‘High Sparrow’ seemed a genuinely humble, compassionate man; if so, that doesn’t seem to have filtered down to his acolytes. Newly empowered, in one of Cersei’s trademark ill-thought-through decisions, as the officially backed ‘Faith Militant’ they swapped their grey cassocks for black ones and took to the streets to enforce their own brand of religious puritanism – whether the populace liked it or not.

Despite their apparent compassionate piety, the Sparrows were a cause for concern last week with their forcible humiliation of the brothel-attending High Septon. You could have written that off as an overly zealous few, but evidently it was only the tip of the iceberg. In the true traditions of Christian puritanism, now they have official licence they were on the streets to expunge sin wherever they saw it – and they saw it everywhere. Barrels of beer, brothels, gambling, and especially homosexuals, none were safe from the attentions of their holy blades. Olyvar should count himself lucky that he was once again clothed and not actually working when the Sparrows ‘cleansed’ Littlefinger’s brothel.

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This plotline works well for me because I’ve always found popular religious fundamentalism especially chilling. The Crusades, the Inquisition, Al Qaeda – all cases of religious fanatics causing bloody massacres in the name of their gods. You can’t argue with them, because their certainty that they’re in the right is utterly unshakeable. If you do, you’re branded a heretic, a blasphemer, or an apostate of Hell – leading to your inevitable protracted and painful death. The Sparrows’ rampage might have recalled the Inquisition, but they’re not that powerful – yet. Instead, it most resembled the rise of puritan friar Giralomo Savonarola in 15th century Florence, and his ‘bonfires of the vanities’; a man so fanatical that even Rodrigo Borgia, as Pope Alexander VI, considered him a serious threat.

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The sequence of their rampage was well-directed by Mark Mylod, the orgy of zealous destruction intercut with a sequence of the clearly fanatical Lancel Lannister having the emblem of the Seven painfully carved into his forehead with a knife. So what was Cersei’s motive for unleashing this mob of fanatics on King’s Landing? Well, on the evidence here, she sees them as a pliable force to wield against her enemies, in this case the Tyrells.

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If you believe that the mob didn’t have the backing of the kindly High Sparrow, it was notable that their first target, after some sly hints from Cersei to their leader, was that well-known homosexual Loras Tyrell. One point up for Cersei against Margaery, but if she thinks this bunch of loons aren’t going to turn their attention to her promiscuity, drunkenness and incest then she hasn’t been paying attention. Then there’s the small matter of regicide in the death of Robert Baratheon – which Lancel Lannister knows more than a little about.

And evidently the populace of King’s Landing are now true believers in Stannis’ skilfully seeded allegation that all of Cersei’s children are the products of her incestuous relationship with her brother. Tommen found this out trying to see the High Sparrow about Loras’ release, on the urging of his new queen – the crowd shouting “Bastard!” and “Abomination!” at him. Poor old Tommen – he really does seem to be a decent person, and has the potential to be a good King, but he’s so painfully naïve that I doubt he’ll last long enough to show that. Interestingly, Dean Charles Chapman, who plays Tommen, is in the opening credits, so clearly the character is going to play a far bigger role than he does in the books. Chapman, you may remember, also played the ill-fated Martyn Lannister who was a hostage of Robb Stark before Lord Karstark killed him. Well, I guess all these Lannisters look the same…

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Speaking of the Lannisters and their children, we got a nice bit of action as Jaime and Bronn finally arrived on the shores of Dorne in their quest to rescue Myrcella. It was interesting that Jaime carefully avoided explaining quite why it “had to be me”, describing Myrcella to Bronn as his niece. Which technically she is, but she’s also his daughter. Incest can be so confusing.

The script, by first time writer Dave Hill, didn’t dwell on this, cutting instead to some action as the intrepid pair took on four mounted Dornish guards. It was a well-staged fight, and the most fun was to be had in seeing how Jaime, tutored by Bronn in fighting with his left hand, would fare in his first taste of action since he lost his right. As it turned out, not too well – but that artificial hand saved his life when his opponent got his sword stuck in it. Nice one.

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That was a welcome bit of action in a show which, of late, hasn’t had all that much of it. But it didn’t stint on the usual Machiavellian intrigue either, as Petyr Baelish outlined his latest convoluted scheme to a confused Sansa. Apparently she’s some kind of Trojan Horse, ready to become “Wardeness of the North” when Stannis sweeps down to take Winterfell on his way to King’s Landing. That’s as may be, but I don’t think either of them have quite realised that in the mean time, she’ll have to get married to a psychotic sadist who delights in protracted torture. I think Sansa may have some bad times to come while she waits for Stannis.

The man himself was still up at Castle Black, annoying new Lord Commander Jon Snow with his pilfering of the Watch’s limited supplies. There’s been a lot of attention to the Watch recently, and Sam in particular has stepped up to become quite the hero, engineering Jon’s election as Commander and ensuring that his ever-surly leader took the pragmatic but loathsome step of trying to enlist the help of Roose Bolton in the fight against the White Walkers. Even Gilly seems to (finally) be getting an actual personality.

This week though, the Castle Black action was mostly about Stannis and his retinue. His wife Selyse and daughter Shireen are getting far more detail here than they did in the books, and I particularly loved the revealing and touching scene between father and daughter, played to perfection by Stephen Dillane and Kerry Ingram. Stannis may seem a gruff, unfeeling leader, but deep down he has a heart and feels more for his daughter than his cold wife ever will. Dillane played their hug especially well; as Shireen put her arms around him, he stood stiffly unmoving before, a few moments later, haltingly returning her embrace. This is a man who can feel, but doesn’t quite know how to.

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Tyrion was back on form this week, his respite from constant drinking seeming to have returned his wits to him. On finding out that the queen Jorah was taking him to was not Cersei but Dany, it took him mere moments to surmise the exact circumstances of why Jorah would be doing this. So accurately, in fact, that the pained Jorah slugged him unconscious just to shut him up. It’s possible the show may be shaping them up as one of its trademark double acts, though on this basis they won’t work well together. The bigger question is what will happen to both of them when/if they reach their destination. I hope the show doesn’t dwell too long on their boat trip – there’s a bit too much travelogue already this season for my liking.

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If they do reach Dany, though, they may find themselves plunged into a bloody civil war. Despite inspiring the ep’s title, it wasn’t until the last few minutes that we saw the return of the Sons of the Harpy – former masters (and probably slaves too) who don’t like Dany’s changes to their way of life, and want things back the way they were. A sort of militant Meereenese UKIP, basically.

Dany having once again uncompromisingly refused Hizdahr zo Loraq’s (well argued) suggestion that the fighting pits should be reopened, the Sons went on the rampage much as the Sparrows had in King’s Landing. Hill’s script cleverly drew the parallels by having each mob rampage at either end of the ep; and like the Sparrows, the Sons took their fury out on the populace as well as the ‘invaders’. A sort of Meereenese ISIS, basically.

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But it was the Unsullied, as Dany’s army, who were the main target of their ire, leading to a very well-choreographed mass swordfight at the ep’s climax. It was great to see Ser Barristan Selmy finally showing the fighting mettle for which he’s so famous – but with both he and Grey Worm apparently mortally wounded, will we be seeing Ian McElhinney and Jacob Anderson again? I hope so, but it’s worth noting that the show hasn’t offed any major characters yet this year. I’d bet that one or both aren’t going to survive their injuries.

Sex and violence

Plenty of both this week, notably in the scene where the Sparrows took the sword to Littlefinger’s brothel. There was gratuitous nudity aplenty, both male and female, as the prostitutes were forced to take an unexpected break from their jobs:

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The female nudity was generally more revealing than the male this time, but we did get two conspicuously naked men as the Sparrows expressed their considerable dislike of homosexuality. Nudity was combined with violence here; Olyvar should count himself lucky that all he got was a bloody nose, and Loras should probably start worrying.

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That woman Melisandre was at it again, chucking herself at Jon Snow by means of opening her dress and shoving her naked body in his face. After he rejected her through gritted teeth by admitting he was still in love with Ygritte, it was spooky to hear the deceased Wildling’s catchphrase through the witch’s lips: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

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Choice dialogue this week

Bronn, on the Dornish: “The Dornish are crazy. All they want to do is fight and fuck, fuck and fight.”

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Bronn again, asked if he wanted an exciting death: “I’ve had an exciting life. I want my death to be boring.”

Tommen, to Margaery: “Aren’t you and mother getting along?”

Hizdahr zo Loraq: “traditions are what holds this city together. Without them, former slaves and former masters have nothing in common except centuries of mistrust and resentment.”

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This was a cracking episode from Dave Hill, who’s been a longtime assistant to showrunners Benioff and Weiss. It balanced the action and the intrigue well, and the show seems to be finally picking up its pace after a leisurely first few episodes. Whether this momentum will be maintained is hard to know, but it was certainly a relief to get back to some real action set pieces after several weeks without.