Game of Thrones: The Meeting Viewers Have Been Waiting for

Our roundtable discusses “The Gift,” the seventh episode of the fifth season.

Macall B. Polay / HBO

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

Orr: “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace. My name is Tyrion Lannister.”

At last! I know I speak for quite a few book readers when I say that pretty much the only thing that kept me going through the eleventy thousand discursive, digressive pages of George R. R. Martin’s fifth tome, A Dance With Dragons, was the promise of Tyrion finally meeting up with Daenerys Targaryen. And, of course, after eleventy thousand pages, it never happened. So on behalf of myself and everyone else who sacrificed sleep, work, family, and friends waiting for this moment, let me say thank you, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Bonus points for what seemed to be a cameo by Strong Belwas (a book character who was written out of the show) as the nameless fighter who freed Tyrion from his chains.

As for the rest of the episode—well, let’s just say I found it mixed, in no small part because it offered yet another exhibit in the unfolding case against Benioff and Weiss’s fascination with (an ungenerous viewer might say addiction to) sex, violence, and sexual violence. Let’s begin, as we so often must in discussions on this subject, with Ramsay Bolton, who, in case there’s anyone alive who’s missed the subtle cues, is Not a Nice Guy. (To paraphrase Voltaire: If Ramsay hadn’t already existed in the Martin books, Benioff and Weiss would have had to invent him.)

The good news: We didn’t actually have to watch Ramsay repeatedly brutalize Sansa Stark. But we did get to witness her battered body and hear her plead with Theon/Reek to save her from the nightly horrors inflicted upon her. Alas, despite intimations of possible bravery, he winds up delivering Sansa’s candle straight to Ramsay himself.

I’ve noted before my concern that while Benioff and Weiss excel at many narrative tasks (writing strong dialogue, engineering big moments) the single most crucial element of Martin’s work—the extraordinary cleverness of its plotting—is one that’s so far eluded his adapters. Tonight’s episode offered an object lesson. A few episodes ago, a friend suggested to me that while the mini-plot involving the “the North remembers” woman was fine for an adventure yarn, the truly cunning twist would be if she were in fact a Bolton spy, engaged to entrap Sansa.

When Theon went straight to Ramsay, I thought perhaps that was what had happened. But no such luck. This was a potential twist on which the showrunners whiffed entirely. (Shades of the missed Lannister Honeypot opportunity in season three.) Instead, we got to see yet another Ramsay torture/flaying victim, this one an old woman—I swear, half of Westeros must be missing its skin by now—with the camera lingering over her mutilated flesh. Even the Ramsay Bolton Fan Club, if such a thing exists (and if it does, you may want to keep an eye on it, FBI/NSA/PETA), must find this tedious by now.

Now, it was nice to see the best example to date of Dark Sansa becoming a player of the game, as she sows doubt with Ramsay over whether or not he should kill his pregnant stepmother before she births a potential dynastic competitor. (He’s Ramsay, so: duh.) Sansa’s line “Tommen Baratheon? Another bastard!” was particularly well-played. But we could easily enjoy such moments without having to endure all the look-what-a-bad-thing-Ramsay’s-done-today scenes that have now plagued the show for three seasons.

Rounding out this week’s more than ample sex-and-violence quotient were the attempted rape of Gilly, the successful beating of Sam, the subsequent sex scene between the two, and Tyene Sand’s R-rated “who’s the fairest of them all” quiz for Bronn. (Note: Under such circumstances, the use of slow-acting poison really constitutes cheating.) Here’s one breast, here’s the other, now she’s opening her tunic, the camera pans slowly, lasciviously down her torso (twice!) ... You can almost feel the showrunners congratulating themselves for their courtliness when they stop 5 percent short of full frontal. Again, guys: Seriously? It was bad enough when it looked as though the Sand Snakes were going to be poorly-written-but-otherwise-empowered woman warriors. Turning them into ogle-candy is not an improvement. (I’m going to take one more victory lap, however, for intuiting the perfect match between Bronn and the wicked ballad “The Dornishman’s Wife” three weeks ago. It’s practically become his theme song. And this week—as opposed to last—we got to hear the crucial final line.)

Moving on: It was nice to see Maester Aemon get a proper sendoff at the Wall, and nicer still that the show squeezed in several mentions of his brother “Egg” (a.k.a. King Aegon V), one of the two protagonists of Martin’s likable “Dunk and Egg” novellas. But things look downright mutinous at the Wall, with Jon headed for Hardhome, Ser Alliser acting especially Alliser-y, and even Olly looking ever more crabby about a possible alliance with the mama- and papa-eating Thenns. Watch your back, Sam.

Things are not looking particularly good for Stannis, either. Just ask Nazi Germany (no ethical comparison to the Baratheons intended) how winter weather can affect a military offensive. Stephen Dillane continues his strong run this season, especially when Melisandre asks him—it wasn’t hard to see this coming—to sacrifice the royal blood of his daughter. I have to say, Stannis’s response seemed sensible enough: If leeched blood was enough to enable the long-distance deaths of three kings, shouldn’t it suffice to knock off a couple of nearby Boltons? But I don’t pretend to be an expert in R’hllorian magic.

Back in King’s Landing, the storyline with the Sparrows and Margaery’s imprisonment seems finally to have slowed down a bit from the brusque, careless pace that characterized episodes four and six. Diana Rigg’s Lady Olenna was a pleasure as always, and never more so than when she cut off the High Sparrow: “Don’t spar with me, little fellow.” I can’t help but wonder once again, though: Where were those men-at-arms accompanying her last week, when lightly armed members of the Faith Militant took her granddaughter, the queen, into custody?

The Queen of Thorns’ scene with Littlefinger was also intriguing, if a tad opaque. It’s nice to see Westeros’s top two schemers (at least until the reappearance of Varys) co-plotting again. My assumption is that the “handsome young man” who Littlefinger says he gave to Cersei as a “gift”—not coincidentally the title of the episode, which also refers to Jorah’s delivery of Tyrion—is his former employee Olyvar, whose testimony got both Loras and Margaery locked up last week. (Brief digression: There were many, many things wrong with that inquest scene, but among the most appalling was the Perry-Mason-esque moment in which Olyvar reveals that he knows about Loras’s Dorne-shaped birthmark. But they’ve already established that Olyvar was Loras’s squire. Of course he’s seen his knight naked!)

Somewhat less clear was the identity of the “handsome young man” Littlefinger claimed to be gifting Olenna. I assume we’re meant to understand that it was Lancel, whose testimony—in an exquisite moment of balance—gets Cersei herself locked up. But there are a few problems with this. How is Littlefinger gifting Lancel to Olenna now, when it seems that Lancel’s been confessing to the High Sparrow for weeks and probably months already? And given this, why did the High Sparrow wait until now to arrest Cersei? Again, I’m glad this storyline finally slowed down this week, but it still seems a bit hasty and confused.

In any case, we’ve gotten where we need to be, with both queens imprisoned and an impotent boy on the throne. (Paging Kevan Lannister! Whatever you think of Cersei, this seems like a time to stop dorking around in Casterly Rock and come save your royal family.) Two final observations: 1) How marvelous was Cersei’s last, pre-downfall dig at Margaery, “I brought you this venison. It’s quite good. I had it myself for supper only last night”; and 2) I always assumed that the defining characteristic of the “black cells” of King’s Landing—please note the name—was that they didn’t have huge windows letting in sunlight. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess that the High Sparrow had sentenced Margaery to Death by Melanoma.

But aside from Ramsay’s tedious and never-ending depredations—is there some way I can put a large bounty on the head of a fictional character?—pretty much everything else is a quibble when compared to the fact that Tyrion and Daenerys have finally met. The two storylines that we’ve followed for four-and-a-half seasons (and in the case of book readers, approximately infinity pages) have at last intersected. Winter is obviously coming. But so, too, may be closure, even if it takes a couple more seasons.

What did you guys think?

Kornhaber: I thought it was a beautiful-looking episode that contained some ugly ideas. Director Miguel Sapochnik brought a steady hand and cinematic flair to even the moments of walking and talking, and a few shots, like the one of Theon in silhouette outside of Sansa’s door, will stick with me for a while.

But so will the sight of the eldest Stark daughter turned serial-abuse victim, pleading with the man who she believes killed her brothers to offer her the smallest bit of assistance. The show kept the further harm that’s befallen her since her marriage-starting rape off-screen, but that’s no mercy when we have to then hear Sansa talk about the hell she’s living through each night. Just as horrible was seeing the tantalizing thread of hope for her in the form of Theon’s help and northern loyalists be snipped in a few economical yet gruesome shots.

As backlash unfolded last week—from this roundtable, from other viewers, and from a U.S. senator—I found my own feelings about the Sansa rape scene falling, to my own surprise, on the apologetic side. Sexual assault has always been an integral part of the Thrones story, was always a threat hanging over Sansa, and was a natural outcome to the plot we’d been watching unfold this season. I can sympathize with viewers for whom it was the final horror that made them decide Thrones is too brutal to keep watching; I agree with those who think that Littlefinger’s arrangement of this marriage has not been the product of airtight storytelling and character development. But I hadn’t yet come around to the idea that Sansa’s wedding night was a screw-up of, say, the level of the Jaime/Cersei cryptside nonconsensual-sex scene.

But the follow-up episode has me rethinking things, and not in a happy way. It’s one thing for Benioff and Weiss to say that they’re following the story where it would logically go, and that themes are best left to high-school English papers—i.e., dramatic realism trumps the need to Make a Point. But the truth is, life is not a mere series of knowable causes and effects, and fiction writers do have to make decisions. There is an alternate Thrones storyline, just as or more plausible than the one we’ve seen, in which Sansa isn’t raped. And at the very least, there is one that doesn’t involve the political maneuvering of a megalomaniacal brothel owner resulting in the teenage princess viewers have lived with for five years becoming a battered, kept woman in her childhood home, with her one ally skinned alive. The show has chosen to take the Sansa storyline to the absolute darkest place it could go, and to what end? When Ned, Robb, and Catelyn met their horrible fates, we could at least see that it was the result of them making decisions out of a naïve sense of honor. But there’s no such lesson here with Sansa. She’s playing the game, and her reward is misery.

The visceral grossness of the Sansa stuff was at least of a piece with the episode’s other storylines, in which the entrapped peoples’ dire situations were underlined in grim fashion. Gilly and Sam find that the only creature at The Wall who doesn’t want to do them violence is a dog; Margaery must tolerate not only a dank cell but also the false piety of her mother-in-law; Bronn’s locked up and poisoned, with only characters from a jailhouse softcore video to give him conversation. The other big motif was expressions of scorn and spite—both to and from that “hateful bitch” (Margaery’s words) Cersei, from Stannis to Melisandre at the hint of child sacrifice, and from Dany to the triumphant gladiator Jorah.

I agree that Tyrion’s arrival in Meereen is an intriguing development. I couldn’t possibly guess what will come of it, other than some nicely tart banter and a medieval take on Contagion once Jorah the champion starts shaking hands around town. But just as you, Chris, were not entirely clear what was up with Littlefinger in this episode, I was confused during the pit fight. Ceremonial combat was legalized by Daenerys under the assurance that slaves wouldn’t be involved—and yet Jorah and Tyrion are sitting in the dugout, enslaved? What did I miss? (Seriously, tell me.) And I now get that the large fellow who freed Tyrion is a book character, but that doesn’t make his actions any less inexplicable. Ever since the nonsense scenes in Dorne and King’s Landing last week (great point about knowledge of Loras’s birthmark being evidence only that the knight-squire relationship involves locker-room-ish situations), I think my plausibility sensors have been on high alert. If this is the season where Benioff and Weiss are improvising more and more, it’s bad news for the future of the show if suddenly we’re seeing a rise in the number of “huh?” moments.

I fear I’ve come across as too negative. As a reminder of why we watch Thrones in the first place, look to the scene with the High Sparrow confronting Cersei. Note the writing, how it roots his character in the history of the realm, keys into real-world dynamics with regards to faith, and bridges the High Sparrow’s seemingly humble nature with the violence that his followers have inflicted. And check out Jonathan Pryce’s face, how it slowly hardens from conviviality to menace. When Cersei’s taken away, she’s finally facing the consequence of her reckless plotting. Hopefully, the show itself won’t eventually be in the same sort of situation.

Amy, what’d you think?

Sullivan: I’m reluctantly sticking with the show to see where it takes these new storylines through this season’s finale, but this week didn’t do much to restore my faith in the showrunners. Other than the very welcome addition of plenty more Lady Olenna. Her expanded role—like that of Tywin Lannister—has been one of their best calls in adapting the books.

As for the backlash to last week’s final scene, I can speak only for myself, but it certainly wasn’t the case that my exquisite, delicate sensibilities were offended by the mercifully less-than-explicit treatment of marital rape. Nor would I like to pretend that medieval relationships were all love matches or that sexual violence wasn’t rampant. Believe me, when I play the “when in world history would you have wanted to live” game, no era other than our own is even vaguely appealing for a woman of any class. Everywhere in the world, they have always hurt little girls.

The portrayal of Catelyn and Ned Stark’s marriage was fascinatingly realistic along these lines. She was upfront about the fact that she didn’t want to marry him initially; she had been promised to his older brother, Brandon, who died in the rebellion; and she has never forgiven him for bringing the bastard Jon Snow into their young family. And one imagines that their wedding night was not a passionate affair, and could even have been the kind of marital rape that characterized so many domestic unions.

But Benioff and Weiss haven’t decided to marry Sansa off to a nobody nobleman in order to portray the loneliness and abuse in the average Westerosi marriage. They paired her up with the biggest sociopath in this fictional universe. Was violence and abuse to be expected once we knew that match was Sansa’s fate? Of course. But they chose to invent this plot for her. And with that narrative choice comes some responsibility to make sure that the payoff isn’t just more torture porn and unrelenting punishment of a female character.

Spencer, you asked to what end is this Sansa storyline going to the darkest place. I hesitate to point out, pace Theon, that it can always get worse with Ramsay. But even if it doesn’t, the only thing this has accomplished is giving more urgency to Stannis’s campaign to take Winterfell. Sansa plays the game of thrones whenever she has the chance, but her agency is extremely limited, and she is—as has been the case since late in the first season—completely and utterly alone.

In fact, one of the few commentaries on the Sansa rape scene that made sense to me was the idea that it was more about Theon than Sansa—that being forced to watch Ramsay rape one of his pseudo-sisters would push Theon over the edge in actually rebelling against his tormentor. That’s why the camera pushed in on Theon’s face while we heard Sansa’s cries, and why we needed the rape to occur in a scene at all instead of getting the aftermath we witnessed in this episode.

But that obviously hasn’t happened. Sansa gave it her best: “Your name is Theon Greyjoy, last surviving son of Balon Greyjoy, Lord of the Iron Islands. Do you hear me?” But Theon/Reek is still so completely terrified of Ramsay that Sansa’s pleas only move him to scurry back to his master with word of her attempted signals for help. I didn’t need to see yet another flayed victim or hear Ramsay tell Sansa “You should hold onto your candles—the nights are so long now” to understand that she’s a prisoner with no hope.

Why am I still watching, you ask? For scenes like Lena Headley just killing it, expressing the ferocity of her mother’s love to Tommen. In practice, she is of course motivated by more than just the protection of her children. But watch that again—“I would burn cities to the ground. You are all that matters. You and your sister.” Cersei has done some very bad things, but this is the story she tells herself, a variant of her father’s constant reminder that family is everything. And it’s why she lashes out with such righteous fury when anyone questions her. That will surely not serve her well in whatever upcoming trial she faces.

That final showdown between Cersei and the High Sparrow was nearly perfect, with his face hardening and hers freezing the moment she realizes that this particular game is not—and never has been—under her control. What was it the High Sparrow said to Laddy Olenna? “When the many stop fearing the few…” Welcome to rebellion, Queen Cersei.

I do wish, as both of you have written, that the Sparrow storyline had been given more time to develop. They have been written as crazed fanatics obsessed with immorality, when in fact a grassroots religious movement would be a natural response to the swamp of violence and poverty and inequality that Westeros has become. We spend so much time with the kingdom’s one percent that it’s easy to forget how ill-gotten and undeserved their power and riches are.