Game of Thrones: A Pointless Horror and a Ridiculous Fight

Our roundtable discusses “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken the sixth episode of the fifth season.

DeObia Oparei / HBO

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

Orr: First, a brief victory lap. In this space two weeks ago, I suggested that Bronn would be a big fan of the easy-listening Westerosi standard “The Dornishman’s Wife.” And when we re-encountered Bronn tonight, what was he singing? Yep, that’s right. Readers can send in their requests for any other Seven Kingdoms chart-toppers, and we’ll see what we can accomplish. Operators are standing by.

(Also: Digression from a digression. Jerome Flynn, who plays Bronn, was trying very hard not to show off his singing voice tonight. But he was in fact half of the 1990s doo-wop duo Robson and Jerome. He gets to demonstrate his pipes a bit with this amiable cover of “Up on the Roof”; and while he’s mostly backup on “Unchained Melody,” the video makes touching use of footage from David Lean’s intimate masterpiece Brief Encounter. I can’t help but think that this background is one reason that Flynn’s able to sell even the simplest of lines with a certain musical lilt. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)

Frequent visitors to the roundtable will have a pretty good idea about how I feel about the episode’s closing, wedding-night scene. (Short version: Stay classy, Benioff and Weiss.) But let me table that for now and return to it once my nausea has receded.

In last week's excellent episode, the show did a nice job of limiting its vistas: two related plotlines in northern Westeros, and two related plotlines in Essos. Tonight there was substantially more jumping around—we skipped the Wall and Meereen, but touched down almost everywhere else—and this helped lay bare some thinness of plotting.

We begin with Arya at the House of Black and White, bathing corpses and no doubt having second thoughts about her earlier gripe that “I didn’t come here to sweep floors.” She has a surprisingly pleasant tete a tete with Mean Girl No One, who it turns out is also(!) a noble born Westerosi with a tragic backstory. At least until the kicker: “Was that true? Or was it a lie?”

Arya impressively gets the hint. (It can’t hurt that she now looks to be about 20 years old.) When a brokenhearted father shows up with his suffering, terminally ill daughter, Arya takes the lesson to heart, telling what is, without doubt, the Most Generically Effective Lie of All Time: “I understand completely. I know exactly how you feel. The same thing happened to me.” Her reward is a visit to the living-mask collection of the Faceless Men. “A girl is not ready to become no one,” Jaqen H’ghar tells her. “But she is ready to become someone else.” Intriguing! And let’s not forget that one of the few remaining names on Arya’s death-list, Ser Meryn Trant, was sent to Braavos just a couple of episodes ago. Here’s hoping she has an opportunity to give Syrio Forel some appropriate avenging.

Arya’s scenes are interspersed with Ser Jorah and Tyrion’s berry-cleanse journey to Meereen. I liked the exchange where Tyrion expressed admiration for Jorah’s dad, deceased Lord Commander Mormont of the Night’s Watch. It was a pleasant grace note, but also a nice moment of understated plot interweaving. It reminded me of Stannis’s comments to Sam last week regarding the latter’s militarily brilliant (but paternally horrible) father, Randyll Tarly. It’s all a useful reminder that—at least if you’re noble-born—Westeros is a pretty small place.

Of course such familial ruminations are interrupted when Jorah and Tyrion are captured by slavers. Tyrion’s quick wit under the circumstances accomplishes two ends. First, they now have a boat to Meereen. And second, for the only time in the history of the English (and probably any other) language, we got to hear the sentence “The dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant.”

So much for Essos. The rest of the episode returns us to the Seven Kingdoms. I missed King’s Landing last week, and it’s never looked better—or evidently, smelled worse—than when Lady Olenna makes her long-awaited reappearance, looking down from her carriage in the hills above, to remark “You can smell the shit from five miles away.” Indeed, the nation’s all-pro schemers seem to be once again succumbing to the gravitational pull of King’s Landing, with Lord Petyr Baelish returning, too. (Can Varys be far behind?)

Littlefinger is greeted by Brother Lancel “Don’t Call Me Lannister,” who seems to have developed a severe case of self-importance after carving a sunflower onto his forehead. Two weeks ago, we talked about how astonishingly abrupt the show was in its introduction of the Faith Militant. That misstep grew still more evident tonight, with the army of the High Sparrow seeming to have taken over King’s Landing entirely.

To which I can only say: What? These are untrained, un-armored, poorly weaponed religious fanatics. Where are the Gold Cloaks? Where are the Lannister—and Tyrell(!)—men-at-arms? As Margaery is carted away on the say-so of a gigolo, a couple of White Cloaks briefly contemplate defending their queen and then decline. Cersei’s acquiescence notwithstanding, this is almost intolerably silly. If peasant uprisings were this simple—and that’s what, Lancel notwithstanding, the Sparrows' movement is—there would never have been such a thing as a kingdom. (And while we’re on the subject, why doesn’t devout, suddenly powerful Lancel send Cersei to the black cells by confessing that he, her cousin, had personally fulfilled her sexual needs on many occasions?)

Littlefinger’s plot, too, comes into clearer—but not necessarily better—focus. Having set up Sansa to wed Ramsay Bolton, he now pretends to Cersei that he’s uninvolved and eager to march the knights of the Vale against whomever is left standing after the upcoming Stannis-Bolton smackdown. On the surface, it’s clever, playing each side off against the other, with a plausible alliance no matter who wins. But like the original Sansa marriage plan, it makes less sense the more you think about it. Stripped bare, Petyr’s pitch to Cersei is essentially: 1) You have no strength or ability to enforce your will in the North; and 2) So, when I win the North, you will give me the title—already explicitly useless coming from you—of Warden of the North. Or am I missing something here?

The Dorne subplot seems as though it belongs to another show altogether, and not one that I’m terribly eager to watch. Jaime and Bronn’s ridiculous rescue plan is one half Mission: Impossible and one half a “Road to” movie with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The two sneak into the Water Gardens dressed as Dornishmen—we’re one short step away from a cross-dressing comedy here—snag Myrcella, and at exactly that moment the Sand Snakes show up for combat (and dialogue) that would not have been out of place on Xena: Warrior Princess. Let’s just hope that Areo Hotah—he’s the guy with the axe—locks them all up for the rest of the season.

Which finally brings me to the developments at Winterfell. (It’s a wedding! What could possibly go wrong?) Let’s start with a small thing: When you’re a noble lady about to be married, and someone shows up at your door to say, “Hey, remember me? I’m Myranda, the kennel-keeper’s daughter, and I’m here to bathe you,” the appropriate response is “Have you mistaken me for a puppy? Where the hell are my serving women?” Now, it was nice that Sansa had a moment of fortitude after Myranda tried to scare her by explaining that those who “bored” Ramsay were likely to end up like poor Tansy, hunted down and eaten by dogs.

But little good that fortitude did Sansa in the closing scene on her wedding night, as Ramsay was, for all intents and purposes, raping her while forcing Theon to watch. I’ve been dreading this moment since early in the season—and even before, based on early rumors. I know I’m a broken record on the subject, but I continue to be astonished that showrunners Benioff and Weiss still apparently believe that their tendency to ramp up the sex, violence, and—especially—sexual violence of George R.R. Martin’s source material is a strength rather than the defining weakness of their adaptation.

Yes, several of the greatest moments of the series—Ned Stark’s beheading, the Red Wedding, etc.—have been horrifyingly violent. But they have also been surprising, moments that may seem in retrospect to have been inevitable, but in the moment were genuinely shocking. Ramsay’s rape of Sansa was exactly the opposite: something that has been building, obviously, for multiple seasons, a profoundly unimaginative extension of Ramsay’s torture of Theon and of Sansa’s abuse at the hands of Joffrey. The only possible surprise (and, yes, I was hoping for it) would have been Benioff and Weiss not following this storyline to its extraordinarily ugly yet entirely foreseeable conclusion.

Almost every Game of Thrones fan is familiar with the YouTube compilations of viewers having their minds blown by Ned’s death or the wedding carnage at the Twins; I find it awfully unlikely that there will be any comparable reels from tonight’s episode. Long-anticipated depression and disgust make for much worse video.

Can Benioff and Weiss claw it back? Sure. Maybe next episode will open with Sansa slipping a knife into Ramsay’s neck, or Theon burying a hatchet into his back. But whatever happens, it’s unlikely to erase this moment. I think Benioff and Weiss have done some extremely heady, clever things this season in adapting Martin’s spiraling, out-of-control fourth and fifth novels. But I’ve rarely, if ever, felt less enthusiastic about the show than I did tonight, when the screen faded to black to the sound of Sansa’s groans.

Am I wrong? Can either of you make me feel better about this moment?

Sullivan: No. Just no.

I get that everywhere in the world they hurt little girls—and young women. I get that in the Seven Kingdoms, women—even powerful women—are still just pawns whose bodies are used as moves in the game of thrones. I get that it would have been unbelievable to have Brienne swoop in to rescue Sansa before the totally predictable So I Married A Sociopath movie began for our Lady Stark.

Almost as unbelievable as, say, Bronn and Jaime tiptoeing into the middle of the Water Gardens like two extras from Ishtar, at the very moment the Sand Snakes show up to snatch pretty Myrcella and tie her to the railroad tracks, like the cartoonish bad guys they are.

But enough. That last scene is almost enough to make me turn off the show. I haven’t decided yet. My stomach is still in my throat—and not in a “Oh, this is exciting, I wonder what they’ll do next” kind of way. We’ve seen more vile sadism over the course of the show, much of it from Ramsay himself. We’ve even seen another wedding-night rape, before Dany thinks of Khal Drogo as her sun and stars. This is different, all the more disturbing for being unnecessary, as you so accurately point out, Chris.

I suspect D.B. Weiss and David Benioff think they’ve developed Sansa into a character who controls her own destiny, who has used her time with Baelish to carefully study his skill at maneuvering and manipulation others. We’re supposed to see her as having agency, reluctantly accepting this alliance, enduring the unpleasantness for the chance to potentially exact vengeance on the Boltons. The kind of woman who can dismiss Myranda with: “I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell,” you miserable wench. “This is my home, and you can’t frighten me.”

That’s not what I saw, however. If you’ll forgive me for mixing shows for a moment, this isn’t Joan on Mad Men going to bed with the slimy Jaguar guy, using the only advantages she believes she holds as a woman to secure a partnership and financial security. Sansa is a girl whose body has been traded to further someone else’s ambitions. She doesn’t have a choice; she’s never had a choice.

Sansa has always been good at summoning her haughtiest attitude to protect herself, but it isn’t working this time. She’s all alone, and she’s petrified. The North may remember, but the Stark loyalists aren’t much good when she’s being raped on her wedding night. In King’s Landing, Sansa at least had the Hound looking out for her at the beginning; having turned away Brienne, she has no personal protection. If Theon can break free from his Reek chains, he might be able to help Sansa, but she doesn’t know that. As far as she knows, he betrayed her family, murdered her little brothers, and nearly destroyed Winterfell.

And Baelish. Admittedly, no one ever really knows what’s going on in that fiendish little scheming head of his. But his part in this plotline strikes me as most unrealistic of all. Yes, he’ll say anything, sacrifice anyone, do anything in the service of his favorite cause—himself. (He did marry wackadoodle Aunt Lysa, after all.) So maybe his relationship with Sansa has just been a very long game, maybe he finally saw a way to play that card to his advantage and did so.

The one genuine thing we do know about Baelish, however, is his love for Cat. Since her death, he has expressed that love primarily through his creepy obsession with her daughter, but also in protecting Sansa. Nothing we’ve seen would lead us to expect that Baelish would knowingly hand her over to a sociopath to be raped and tortured in the name of political marriage. Sure, he claimed to have heard very little about Ramsay, but this is Baelish—he has a dossier on every field mouse in Westeros. In that conversation between Ramsay and Baelish several episodes ago, both men lied to each and knew they were each lying, but why?

I’m also torn as to whether Baelish understands how little power Cersei still has. Her little maneuver with the Faith Militant and High Sparrow should cut her off from King Tommen. With Jaime gone, she has no one to support her—or rein in her worst impulses. I’m thrilled to see Lady Olenna back on the scene for so many reasons, not least because she’s the only one who can speak sense to Cersei, not that the Queen Mother is inclined to listen. But if Baelish can’t pick up on Cersei’s weakened position, his Spidey-sense is seriously on the fritz.

Like you, Chris, I was hoping Benioff and Weiss would throw a Martinesque surprise twist into the Sansa-Ramsay plotline but instead they have led us exactly where we dreaded it would go. Can they claw it back, you ask? Only if this turns out to have been a dream sequence. Just as Jaime’s rape of Cersei in the sept poisoned our view of his character’s evolution—and signaled that the showrunners can be very clumsy in their handling of sexual violence—this development may give Baelish the lifetime claim to Most Awful Person in Westeros. I don’t think that was the intended takeaway.

As long as the High Sparrow is trying all and sundry for various crimes, he might as well bring in Benioff and Weiss. Gratuitous sexual violence is bad enough, but gratuitous sexual violence in a ridiculous storyline that not only doesn’t advance our understanding of key characters but rather makes us more confused—that may be the greatest sin of all.

Kornhaber: The Sansa moment was awful, yes. But a plot in which a teenage girl marries a person-flayer can only go one of two ways, and in a show that prides itself on seeing causes all the way through to their ultimate effects, it’s probably going to go the expected way. How screwed up is it that after all the atrocities Thrones has served up, I’d feared that Ramsay and the Stark princess’s first intimate encounter would be even worse—more violent, more graphic—than what we saw?

The question of whether this plotline should be happening at all is a different one. In my mind, Littlefinger already has a “lifetime claim to Most Awful Person in Westeros,” given how his chaos-is-a-ladder machinations have in one way or another contributed to most of the bloodshed we’ve seen on this show. But you two are right to point out some of the half-baked logic around his handover of Catelyn Stark’s daughter. In an interview with EW, this episode’s writer Bryan Cogman clarified that Baelish’s does not have the intel about Ramsay’s proclivities— “He’s not known everywhere as a psycho.” Um, what? Like you said, Amy, Littlefinger has files on everyone, and surely someone would be gossiping about the trail of dog-devoured women left by the northern warden’s son.

Was there at least a thematic payoff? With this wedding-night scene’s vile emphasis on devirginizing, Benioff and Weiss have let fall a sword that’s been hanging over Sansa’s storyline for years. At least since the Hound saved her from rape in King’s Landing in Season Two, Sansa’s chastity has been discussed and defended for a length of time that defies Thrones' tendency to extinguish innocence with prejudice. The stakes were clear when Littlefinger traded her away. Marriage in this world basically makes women into men’s property, and this woman has, after a few near-misses, finally been sealed in a very scary deal.

What will that deal earn her? This episode did not offer any encouraging hints. A thousand miles south, Westeros’ savviest marrier, supposedly the most powerful woman in the land, was taken into custody by overserious monks while her royal boy husband just stared feebly. I agree with you, Chris, that the show has not done a good job of explaining how the capitol has come to be so thoroughly overtaken by the Sparrows. My hope is that Margaery’s incarceration will spur Tommen to finally defy his mother and get those Gold Cloaks into action. In the meantime, we can at least enjoy the fact that this somewhat baffling storyline has necessitated the the return of Lady Olenna, who sees right through Cersei’s attempt to recapture Tywin’s gravitas via quill (what a great touch to have Cersei put the pen down as requested, but only when Olenna’s out of sight). As acting head of House Tyrell, she has real leverage against the crown, and she appears unafraid to use it even if it means civil war. “As for your veiled threats…” Cersei begins at one point, to which Olenna cuts in: “What veil?”

The Vale, discussed moments before in the very same chamber, is another threat Cersei doesn’t quite understand. Littlefinger playing all the angles is no surprise, but I’ll confess to being unclear on why the queen mother thought it so urgent that the brothelmaster come to the capitol just so she could ask him whether his knights would fight for the crown in some unspecified war to come. What’s he going to say, no? If nothing else, the scene made clear that Qyburn’s a better necromancer than he is Master of Whisperers: Cersei seemed to be hearing for the first time the news of Sansa at Winterfell, and perhaps of Stannis marching south. Now that she’s aware of those things, though, her “House Lannister has no rivals” line a few minutes later is particularly rich. I’ll root for Cersei to stay alive so Lena Headey can act till the Doom swallows all the land; Cersei’s delusions, though, are getting very tough to sit through.

Not as tough as the whole Dorne sequence, though. You’re both right that the scenes in the Water Gardens were simply bad TV. I am all for Thrones defying expectations for what happens when a band of sisters enters on a revenge mission, and for what happens when two likable knights go to rescue a stranded princess. But these parties’ clash and the arrival of Prince Doran’s guards came off not as reality crashing in on fantasy narratives, but instead just as a wannabe-badass fantasy narrative in itself. Which is kind of insulting to viewers, considering how preposterous the timing, Jaime and Bronn’s infiltration, and Ellaria Sand’s lack of preparation were. Hopefully Benioff and Weiss are just speeding slapdash through the Dorne plotline on the way to something juicier and smarter. When Bronn said, “This song really is all about the ending,” was that a wink from the writers?

In Braavos, meanwhile, we’re still focused on beginnings. Arya might finally see some benefits to the secret society she’s joined, but first, she has to recount her entire Thrones storyline to Jaqen H'ghar. He was like a very painful lie-detector test, smacking her for not admitting to nursing a friend-crush on the Hound and for claiming to be ready to give up her identity—though deep down that’s not what she, and probably a good portion of the Thrones audience, wants. While telling the truth about yourself is how you play the Game of Faces, telling comforting lies to others seems to be how you find new faces for the House of Black and White portrait gallery. After being undercover and on the run for so long in Westeros, Arya should have no problem with the deception part of the job.

The Jorah/Tyrion storyline also asked us to reach back in our memory banks, to remember who Jorah’s dad was, and what his deal was. Ah, yes: Jeor Mormont, the honorable Night’s Watch leader, slain by his own men. Jorah, we’ve known for a long time, is not quite so principled, though we do get a glimpse of genuine idealism from him in his explanation of why he wants to serve Daenerys. First, though, fate intervenes by having the former slavetrader scooped up by human traffickers. This could end up being a boon for the Meereen regime, delivering Tyrion to the dragon queen all the more quickly. On the other hand, there’s a dangerous stowaway on the pirate ship: grayscale. Thankfully, Dany’s probably in no mood to greet Jorah, or anyone else, with a hug.