Game of Thrones' Riskiest Marriage Plot Yet

Our roundtable discusses 'High Sparrow,' the third episode of the fifth season


Spencer Kornhaber, Christopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Orr: Wait a minute. There’s a royal wedding—and nobody dies a horrible death? A man is beheaded—and we can all agree that it was for the best? What the hell show am I watching? I came here for Game of Thrones, baby, not Wizards of Waverly Place.

I kid, of course. Given David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s tendency to take George R. R. Martin’s material and render it even more bloody than it already was, I’m actually mildly relieved that they didn’t throw in a random homicide just to spice up the nuptials of Margaery and young Tommen, First of His Name.

They did, however, substantially spice up the newlyweds’ sex life. “Surely four times is enough,” sighs an exhausted Margaery. Surely. Oh well, it beats the aforementioned alternative. Make love, not war, and all that.

In tonight’s episode, Benioff and Weiss also launched their most ambitious departure from the books to date, with Littlefinger’s plot to marry Sansa to Ramsay Bolton. I have several thoughts on this, so I’ll save it for last.

“High Sparrow” opens with Arya discovering that life in the House of Black and White is not nearly as much fun as she thought it would be. “I didn’t come here to sweep floors,” she complains to Jaqen H’ghar. “No?” he replies. “Why come then?” Zing! At least Arya has such treats in store as getting smacked around by a blind girl and sponge-bathing a dead guy. Ah, the glamorous life of a faceless assassin …

Speaking of glamour, I’m glad that Lord Commander Jon Snow has finally gotten around to the issue we’ve been waiting for lo these many seasons: the new latrine pit. For an eternity, the Night’s Watch has been distracting itself with White Walkers and Wildling armies and Craster’s Keep mutineers, when all along priority number one ought to have been where to put Number Two. When a Crow’s gotta go, a Crow’s gotta go.

More dramatically, Jon took off the head of Janos Slynt, a man whose head has needed taking off since he was commander of the Gold Cloaks way back in King’s Landing. With that swing of the sword, Jon also came full circle from the very first episode of the series, in which he watched Papa Ned do the same to a Night’s Watch deserter. (That scene was echoed in last week’s beheading in Meereen, too, right down to the line, “the law is the law.”) Jon’s scene with Stannis and Ser Davos was a good one as well. As I’ve mentioned before, doings at the Wall have gotten a lot more interesting since Stannis’s arrival.

Back in Essos, our aerial introduction to Volantis made impressive use of the show’s CGI budget. Last week I compared Braavos to Venice; am I wrong to think that Volantis has a hint of Florence to it? Regardless, it was not hard to predict that Tyrion’s wanderings through the city would end poorly. And has anyone else noticed that the word “greyscale” is coming up an awful lot? There was last week’s convo between Shireen and Gilly, and now Tyrion’s commentary while watching the Red Priestess. Could it be connected to Tyrion’s sudden, unexpected aversion to nookie in the brothel? (That would be another substantial alteration from the books.) Maybe not. But with all this foreshadowing, surely somebody is going to come down with a bad case of Stone-Maningitis.

If it were up to Cersei, of course, that somebody would be Margaery, who for the first time fully outranks her both politically and in Tommen’s affections. Margaery has always seemed a more nuanced schemer than Cersei—she knows, for example, that soft power is as important as hard—but I’d still be careful about taunting the Queen Mother (or Dowager Queen) quite so openly: “I wish we had some wine for you …” Regardless, it’s going to be fun to watch the two of them go at it.

And as long as I’m discussing Cersei’s scheming ability, it’s hard not to question the wisdom of her evidently making common cause with the High Sparrow (or as the Brazil fan in me insists on calling him, in Ian Holm’s voice, “Sam Lowry”). Allying yourself with a religious fanatic who despises hypocrisy when you are yourself a twincestuous adulterer who had your husband killed—what could possibly go wrong?

Two other quick thoughts on King’s Landing. First, did anyone else get a kick out of Pycelle’s profoundly self-serving comment re: the High Septon: “A man’s private affairs ought to stay private.” (Back in season two, he was the one being dragged from the arms of a Littlefinger employee and humiliated with a beard-shaving.) Also, is it just me, or did the body twitching noisily on Qyburn’s slab remind anyone else of a second-rate haunted house?

It was nice to see Brienne finally be nice to loyal old Pod, but given all the ground we need to cover, I could have lived without the backstory about her Bad Night at the Junior Prom.

Which brings me at last back to the new Sansa plotline. It was unpleasant enough to see the sigil of the Flayed Man (plus, actual flayed men) hanging over Winterfell. But that sight paled next to the brutal cut from Lord Roose’s “I’ve found the perfect girl to solidify our hold on the North” to the elder Stark girl. There are two ways this story can go—one good and one bad—and my best guess is that it will be a mix of the two.

Let’s start with the good. In the books, Sansa is never a lick of use to anyone, except as an unwitting poisoned-jewelry delivery device. (Let us not forget that she’s the one who got her father killed in season one by blabbing to Cersei.) Even in a new, as-yet-unpublished chapter that George R. R. Martin put online a few weeks ago, Sansa was still busy learning Remedial Conspiracy back in the Eyrie. So if the new Dark Sansa is ready to spread her wings, scheme a little scheme, and exact revenge on the Boltons (and anyone else), I’m all for it.

But—but—if in order to get there we have to go through scene after scene of her being brutally abused by Ramsay, my thumb is going to grow a fast-forward callus. As we’ve discussed on many occasions (including, um, the top of this post), the single error Benioff and Weiss make most frequently is cranking up the violence, sex, and—worst of all—sexual violence. It’s what caused them to stumble into the Jaime-Cersei rape of last season. It also led them to document Ramsay’s torture and mutilation of Theon (which in the books takes place “offscreen”) at gruesome, interminable length, in all its horn-tooting, sausage-eating glory.

To replay any of this horror with Sansa would be doubly redundant, given that she has already been abused by a fiancé (Joffrey) who was a psycho-sexual sadist. Enough is enough. If Benioff and Weiss go down this path again, it will be a terrible confirmation of their greatest failing as showrunners. But there’s some evidence (e.g., these comments by Iwan Rheon, who plays Ramsay; and these by Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa) that that may be exactly where we’re headed.

On a slightly more narrow note, there are also two ways to read Littlefinger’s peculiar exchange with Ramsay, in which the former confesses “I’ve heard very little about you.” I’m praying that this is a ruse to set Ramsay at ease, and that Petyr Baelish knows full well of his monstrous reputation. Because if we’re to believe it’s actually true that Littlefinger knows nothing about the notorious flay-addict of the North, and engages Sansa to him without bothering to find out—well, that’s just stupid. So, offering the benefit of the doubt, I’m going to assume it’s a ruse.

But I’ve gone on too long. What do you guys think is in store for Sansa? Who’s going to come out on top between Cersei and Margaery? And most important: Will the new latrine be a success?

Kornhaber: Of course the new latrine will be a success, Chris: It exists for one, clear, eternally-in-demand purpose. In that and that alone, perhaps the living might envy inanimate sewage facilities. All men must serve, as Jaquen H’gar reminds his new janitor, but it’s often a challenge to figure out who to serve and how. The House of Black and White dramatizes this fact by asking Arya to swab floors and bodies in silence, for no known purpose. But she wasn't the only one to ponder questions of duty in this episode: Sansa accepted an awful marriage proposal in hopes of eventual justice; Brienne and Podrick revealed how they acquired their lifelong debts of gratitude; Jon considered the idea that, per Davos, "the best way to help the most people might not be sitting in a frozen castle at the end of the world."

Jon also imposed some duties upon his new subordinates, and in doing so showed a Tywinesque level of cunning. First, Stannis advises the Lord Commander to banish Alliser Thorne to a hardship posting, perhaps demonstrating why he's among the most unloved men in the land. But Snow has a better read of the situation, and knows that Thorne’s rage stems from wounded pride. Humiliating him in the latrines would only worsen his grudge; sending him to Greyguard or Eastwatch by the Sea would put an enemy out of sight but not out of mind. Instead, Jon de-thorns Alliser (sorry) by elevating him to First Ranger and orders to Siberia the true liability of the Night’s Watch, that jerkly coward (or is it cowardly jerk?) Ser Janos. When Janos balks, Jon grimly aces the test of his authority. The only potential misstep I see from the new Crow leader is letting Olly listen in on discussions that might result in mercy for the same Wildlings that murdered and cannibalized the boy’s family.

Cersei, too, made a tricky administrative decision in this episode, imprisoning the High Septon of sex games. You may be right, Chris, that she’s risking a lot in ditching a false believer for a true one. But who can feel threatened by a barefooted, smiling Jonathan Pryce, making cracks about “lord Duckling”? Besides, Cersei knows that she could use a few more allies in Margaery-mad King's Landing. For the second week in a row, I must rave about Lena Headey: As Cersei’s mournful rage has cooled into survival-mode dread, the actress has traded snarls and lip curls for a brittle, thin smile. When the royal newlyweds’ alter kiss parted to reveal Cersei straining to perform joy, and when her peace overture to her new daughter-in-law was met with barely veiled taunts and handmaiden giggles, I felt sharp pangs of empathy for this fundamentally monstrous person.

Speaking of sharp feelings, Varys did not successfully impart fear of capture into his traveling companion, but he did in me. Hearing Tyrion brag in the brothel about always paying his debts was excruciating. Of course he'd be noticed by someone like Jorah Mormont, whiling away his days leering at a prostitute-impersonator of the One True Ruler Who Got Away. Chris, you wondered whether a disease kept Tyrion from consummating, but I'd assumed that he was afflicted with nothing more than lust-busting remorse over Shae. If only the sadness had snapped him to his senses rather than sending him to a vulnerable peeing post.

In yet other uncontrollable emotions: I literally booed at the screen when director Mark Mylod cut from Roose’s marriage discussion with Ramsay to a shot of Sansa riding with Littlefinger. Chris, you say this is twist is Benioff and Weiss's biggest addition yet; I say it's a thematically perfect stroke of genius that I desperately don't want to watch unfold. How horrible that Sansa is now betrothed to the only psychopath worse than the one she was originally set to marry, one whose father betrayed and murdered her mother and brother. A revenge mission is a tantalizing prospect, but I’d have wanted Sansa to secure more assurances and more of a plan from Baelish before riding down to meet the Boltons. Then again, she knows by now not to trust her creepy pseudo-uncle; he showed his callousness yet again when he offered to let Roose “inspect” Sansa to confirm her virginity—ew. If she’s going to get justice for the Red Wedding, she'd be better off enlisting help from friends of the kindly lady who told her that “the North remembers.”

The notion of an oppressed population and a perpetual pawn rising up against the wicked and powerful would be right in line with the other big theme of the episode—equality as a force for change. The High Sparrow preaches that no one is special; the red priestess of Volantis assures that the Lord of Light “hears the king as he hears the slave”; the Faceless Men seem to seek transcendence by giving up their identity. All three religions offer alternatives to the violent hierarchies that rule Westeros; Cersei is probably mistaken when she says “the faith and the crown are the two pillars that hold up this world—one collapses, so does the other." In the real world and in Thrones, total egalitarianism is a radical idea, and radical ideas threaten rulers and produce fanatics.

Arya would like to be one of those fanatics, but my guess is that she won't go all the way into facelessness. When she hid Needle rather than drown it, it was a bit of a relief—a sign that for however much she talks about wanting to be just A Girl, some part of her peppy personality, not to mention her personal vendettas, will survive. Or is that just wishful thinking?

Sullivan: I’m sorry, did you say something, Spencer? I’m still in shock about Sansa and [shudder] Ramsay. This is your idea of saving her, Littlefinger? I’ll bet Sansa already regrets turning down Brienne’s offer of protection. Even a faux knight with a dodgy record of success would be better than being left alone with Satan’s spawn. That pan from a trying-to-look-charming-instead-of-insane Ramsay welcoming Sansa over to the line of women who know his true nature was chilling. I do hope the Boltons at least took down the string of flayed bodies for Sansa’s homecoming.

The only possible way I could approve of this new plot development is if it ends with Jon getting word of Sansa’s presence at Winterfell and riding back home to save her, vows be damned. I want that family back together!

I did appreciate the callback to the show’s premiere, as the Boltons lined up to receive Sansa and Baelish. Winterfell is much changed from those days when the whole Stark family gathered to greet King Robert—and winter itself is closing fast.

A second reminder of that very first episode came after the cut from Jon at the Wall to Arya in Braavos, preparing to toss every reminder of her old life into the sea. But as you note, Spencer, she can’t quite do it, and hides Needle. That’s our best indicator that Arya won’t become simply A Girl. If you’ll remember back, Jon had the blacksmith at Winterfell make Needle for Arya, and he presented her with it before leaving for the Night’s Watch. I want to think she was remembering that connection and couldn’t completely sever the past.

Back in Kings Landing, I continue to share your pangs for Cersei, Spencer. Her humiliation by Margaery was almost worse than the dressing-down from Uncle Kevan last week. First the new queen calls her a drunk in front of other mean girls—“Mother, welcome! I wish we had some wine for you—it’s a bit early in the day for us.” Then Margaery just has to bring up how much sex she and baby boy Tommen are having. But that parting shot—“What’s the proper way to address you now? Queen mother or Dowager queen?” That was ice cold. As Cersei strode away, trying to maintain her dignity while the mean girls tittered, I felt keenly how powerless she is now.

The less said about Tommen and Margaery’s bedroom scenes, the better. Isn’t he like eight years old? What happened to the boy who just wanted to hang out with his beloved furball Ser Pounce? Manipulating this new king is hardly a worthy challenge for Margaery. It’s embarrassing, really. He’s head-over-heels. You like to sail? Me, too! That’s crazy! We’re are so totally soul mates. Just a few well-placed “But you’ll always be her baby boy” and “It’s no wonder she’s so protective of you—she’ll never let you out of her sight” comments, and Tommen is all but tossing his mother in a carriage bound for Casterly Rock.

The third callback from the premiere was, of course, Jon’s execution of Ser Janos, no doubt remembering Ned Stark’s words upon killing a deserter from the Night’s Watch: “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” It was excruciating to watch Jon’s face as Janos begged for mercy with his head on the stump. But not as excruciating as the actual act. Since the premiere aired in 2011, the world has endured too many videos of terrorists beheading hostages. That fact took me out of the scene as I watched, and tainted Jon’s act in a way surely not intended by the show’s creators.

I would like to think that these references to the show’s beginnings mean that we have turned the corner and that the story will be more concentrated on bringing characters back together and building toward the ending than separating them and establishing more worlds. That seems like a good thing. But as Tyrion learned this week, getting what you think you want does not always work out. Oh, to be stuck back in that traveling box with laugh-a-minute Varys! Better than hanging out with Ramsay, Tyrion. In the Games of Thrones, no matter how bad your situation, at least you always know someone else has it worse.