An Answer to Game of Thrones' Biggest Mystery?

Our roundtable discusses 'Sons of the Harpy,' the fourth episode of the fifth season.


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

Sullivan: Now we’re getting somewhere. And I’m not just referring to all of the potential wars that so many of our Game of Thrones characters are trying to either stave off or set aflame. We’ll get to those in a moment. No, I’m talking about the long-simmering question that should be on every fan’s mind, the one that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to answer before George R. R. Martin would hand over his series so they could bring it to television.

Who is Jon Snow?

In an episode that focused on the power of a family name—for good or ill—it was fitting that the show finally provided some clues regarding the real parentage of the Night’s Watch commander. For five seasons, Jon Snow has been belittled and resented for his bastard status. And we’ve been led to believe, although Ned Stark never actually said so, that Jon was Ned’s son from a wartime affair when the elder Stark was off fighting in Robert’s Rebellion.

“A bastard by some tavern slut,” spits Stannis’s wife, as they watch Jon move among his men at Castle Black. “Perhaps,” says Stannis. “But that wasn’t Ned Stark’s way.” What was Ned Stark’s way was putting family above all else, especially when it came to his beloved younger sister Lyanna. The story as told throughout the Seven Kingdoms is that Lyanna was engaged to Robert Baratheon when she disappeared with Prince Rhaegar Targaryen (himself already married to Elia Martell, sister to Doran and Oberyn). Her disappearance—usually characterized as a kidnapping—sparked all-out war in Westeros, which ended with the death of Lyanna, Rhaegar, Elia, and the Targaryen children.

Ned returned from the war brokenhearted, his sister having died in his arms. He brought with him a baby boy, whom he was determined to protect and raise, despite the wrath of his wife. Interesting timing there.

If I were a betting man like Baelish, my money would be on Jon as the secret love-child of Rhaegar and Lyanna, entrusted to Ned, who agreed to his dying sister’s demand that her son’s über-royal lineage never be revealed. So instead of Jon Stark Targaryen, the world knows him as simply Jon Snow.

What this means for the future of Westeros, I still don’t know. But it provides further explanation—other than the obvious—for Melisandre’s eagerness to get it on with Jon. The lady’s got some finely tuned royal radar.

While Jon may not know about the royal houses he represents, others in Westeros are all too aware of their own family histories. Down in the south, our favorite buddy comedy—“Two knights, off to rescue a princess,” as Bronn describes it—features one brooding Jaime Lannister, who believes he must do penance for his father’s death by saving his daughter. The idea that he could quietly slip in and out of Dorne is foolish, however. “I’m not sure you understand how much people hate your family in this part of the world,” Bronn tells him. And that’s before we meet Oberyn’s deadly daughters, who are bent on avenging their father, whether or not they bear his name.

At the other end of the kingdom, Stannis reveals that he's driven by another sort of guilt. In a tender scene with his daughter, Shireen, Stannis tells a story that unspools the heartbreak and remorse of a father who believes himself responsible for the disease that nearly killed his daughter. When Shireen bravely asks if he’s ashamed of her, Stannis replies the strongest way he knows how: “You are the Princess Shireen of House Baratheon—and you are my daughter.”

Stannis is about to set off for Winterfell with his army, and it’s there that we finally get a better sense of Baelish’s grand scheme. Stannis will take Winterfell, he’ll rescue Sansa from the Boltons, and then name her Wardeness of the North. Of course, a thousand things could go wrong, but Littlefinger isn’t concerned. “You are the last surviving Stark,” he tells Sansa. “The North will be yours.”

Sansa’s reply cuts away all of the masculine hubris that feeds such a confident prediction. “I expect I’ll be a married woman by the time you return,” she says. The North may one day be hers, and the people of the North may truly rally around her instead of the Boltons or Stannis or any other would-be leader. But Sansa is still a woman, married off yet again on someone else’s orders to serve someone else’s master plan. That’s her reality, and it comes with daily sacrifices—and potentially abuses—that no man would willingly submit himself to.

And what of those other women who have learned to make the best of their situations? Cersei and Margaery’s war for control of Tommen has moved out of the mere Mean Girl sniping stage and is now on. First, Cersei tries to isolate Margaery by sending her father Lord Mace Tyrell away to visit the Iron Bank, chaperoned by Ser Meryn Trant. And then she has the re-commissioned Faith Militant arrest and imprison Ser Loras—“You have broken the laws of gods and men.”

It’s not hard to suspect that Cersei is being characteristically short-sighted by mobilizing and encouraging armed religious fanatics. She threw Margaery for a moment—watch the new queen initially storm in to confront Tommen, and then count to 10 before remembering her honey-sweet approach works better. But Margaery is the one who's beloved in Kings Landing—more than Cersei, and even more than Tommen, who endures cries of “Bastard!” and “Abomination!” when he tries to meet with the High Sparrow. A woman who conceived three children with her brother is a mighty tempting target for the Faith Militant.

I’ll leave that last, bloody sequence in Meereen to you two. Did we just watch Grey Worm and Ser Barristan die? I wanted to hear more about Rhaegar’s musical tastes. Game of Thrones: The Musical.

Orr: A musical by all means—as long as we don’t have to listen to any more renditions of “The Rains of Castamere”! It became such a Lannister leitmotif last season that I was hearing it in my sleep. While we’re at it, let’s skip “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” too. How about “The False and the Fair” in honor of Ramsay and Sansa’s upcoming nuptials, and “The Dornishman’s Wife,” which perfectly captures Bronn’s description of the Southern kingdom.

But back to the episode. As Hizdahr zo Loraq noted to Dany, it was opening day of the fighting season. And the Mother of Dragons had best get those pits open quick, because as this episode, “Sons of the Harpy,” demonstrated, fighters gonna fight, pit or no pit. Jon Snow got in a little practice, as did Ser Loras before he was seized. And then we got extra helpings of the real thing, with Bronn and Jaime taking care of a few Dornish redshirts, a William Tell routine (but five inches lower) from Obara, the Sand Snake with the spear, and, of course, the titular melee between the Sons of the Harpy and the Unsullied.

Is Grey Worm dead? Is Ser Barristan the Bold? I have no idea. Both are still alive for a good while in the books—and the latter takes on some important duties—but showrunners Benioff and Weiss have made clear that this season they’ll be killing off characters who didn’t die in the books, so we’ll just have to see. I hope not. In particular, it would be an ignominious death for one of the greatest knights of Westeros.

Back in King’s Landing, Cersei—the woman who rashly recommended cashiering Ser Barristan from the Kingsguard way back in season one—seems only to grow rasher. It was one thing to appoint a fanatical priest (however sweetly played by Jonathan Pryce) to the post of High Septon last episode. But as you point out, Amy, it’s another thing altogether to resurrect the Faith Militant, in effect giving him an equally fanatical army in the middle of King’s Landing. I mean, how much clearer a warning do you need than the High Sparrow’s “All sinners are equal before the Gods.” You do remember you’re a big-time sinner, right, Cersei?

Beyond the inherent folly of the move, the whole development seemed terribly rushed to me. The words “Faith Militant” are scarcely out of Cersei’s mouth when we get a montage in which the city is immediately overrun by young zealots who all seem to have watched Inglourious Basterds one time too many. (I couldn’t help but be struck by the uncanny parallel to Monty Python’s classic Spanish Inquisition skit, in which another violent religious sect is conjured out of thin air the moment you say its name.) This is a subplot that could easily have been stretched out over at least a couple episodes. As you both have noted, Lena Headey’s Cersei may be the most compelling character on the show these days, and it’s a shame to see her machinations against Margaery get compressed just so that we can have room for such indulgences as a fight between Bronn, Jaime, and Four Dornishmen Who Don’t Matter.

I did like the touch of Cersei sending doltish Mace Tyrell away accompanied by noted girl-beater and Lannister flunky Meryn Trant. (Sleep with one eye open, Mace!) And Cersei’s pathological mistrust of—well, everyone—was neatly captured by her exchange with Pycelle: “The Small Council grows smaller and smaller.” “Not small enough.” In the unfolding contest of Cersei versus the world, I’m afraid my money is on the latter. Margaery, by contrast, faced with the exile of her dad to Braavos and her brother to a dark cell, is calling for reinforcements in the form of her grandmother, Lady Olenna, which is good news all around. This season has been missing Diana Rigg’s wicked twinkle.

Up North, we had yet more evidence of what a crappy mom Queen Selyse is, and the best demonstration to date that Stannis is, in his own Stannis-y way, not such a terrible dad. His speech to Shireen was one of truest gestures of affection between two characters we’ve seen in a while (it presumably means that one of them will die horribly next episode) and a series high point for cast member Stephen Dillane. Also: Another set of references to the “Stone Men.” I’m telling you, somebody’s contracting greyscale one of these episodes.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Castle Black, Melisandre is trying to take advantage of Jon Snow’s well-documented affinity for redheads: “Can you feel my heart?” she asks. Um, yeah. That, too. Amy, I’m glad you brought up the Rhaegar-Lyanna theory of Jon’s parentage, because I was thinking along the exact same lines. First, Melisandre suggested her “joining” with Jon would have “the power to cast shadows,” which has always been presented as requiring royal blood. Then, barely five minutes later, in the crypts of Winterfell, Littlefinger recounts the story of Rhaegar and Lyanna at considerable length. It’s almost as if he’s trying to tell us something.

Speaking of which, I still find Littlefinger’s plot to marry Sansa to Ramsay Bolton uncharacteristically disorderly. Why not just marry her to some random northern lord—a Karstark or Mormont or Hornwood or what-have-you—who could raise the North against the Boltons and help Stannis crush them once and for all? You might not even need the marriage, just the revelation that a Stark was alive and well. But then, of course, we wouldn’t all have to worry about the possibility of Ramsay torturing Sansa for episodes on end. As I noted at length last week: this must not happen.

Our limited time in Essos showed Tyrion getting ever closer to Meereen (and Daenerys), which is good news, and also flashing his customary wit, which is even better news. I liked his “waste of a good kidnapping” line almost as much as his immediately deducing pretty much everything he needs to know about Jorah Mormont. Very Sherlockian.

I confess I’m a bit underwhelmed by the goings on in Dorne. I love Jaime and Bronn, but their two-man mission to rescue Myrcella seems ridiculous on its face. And I was not a fan of the scene with the Sand Snakes. In the books (so far at least), Oberyn’s eldest daughters raised a bit of a fuss, and Prince Doran locked them in a tower, and that was pretty much it. Here, it seems clear they will play a larger role in all their multi-weaponed, grrl-powered, Deadly-Viper-Assassination-Squad/Fox-Force-Five glory. It certainly didn’t help that their scene tonight was poorly scripted and acted.

What made Martin’s novels (the first three or four, at least) so great was never the big action moments or battle scenes; it was the exquisite intricacy of the plotting: the politics, the betrayals, the sudden shocks that in retrospect seemed completely inevitable. The same is true with the first four seasons of Game of Thrones. Obviously it’s too early to say, but as I wrote in my season curtain-raiser, I’m a tad nervous that as they are required to improvise more and more Benioff and Weiss are going to start substituting cool for clever, with subplots such as Bronn and Jaime’s Mission: Impossible rescue and characters such as the Sand Snakes. Sometimes this works—the fight between Brienne and the Hound last season was both cool and clever. But I fear it won’t always, and the result could be a show that’s less distinctively Thrones-y a lot more like other things you might find on TV or at the multiplex.

You dropped one quote from Bronn and Jaime, Amy; let me add the response. When Bronn says “Two knights off to rescue a princess—sounds like a good song to me,” Jaime replies: “Sounds like all the rest.” Here’s hoping that not where Thrones is headed.

What about you, Spencer? Any alternative theories on Jon Snow or the doings in Dorne? Ready to carve up your forehead and join the Faith Militant?

Kornhaber: I’d like to attend a sermon or at least read an informational brochure before undergoing any faith-based cosmetic surgery. After all, I only recently learned that Westeros’s dominant religion contains a strain of violent puritanism. Which is to say, you’re right, Chris, that the Sparrows' rise felt too swiftly told; even without knowing what book details are being omitted, it's bizarre to see this famously patient show dole out a few big plot twists over the course of a few minutes rather than a few episodes. It’s not even a well-earned flurry of activity. “All over Westeros we hear of Septs being burned, Silent Sisters raped, bodies of holy men piled in the streets,” Cersei says, to which I reply, have we? I suppose Melisandre’s ongoing bonfire of the randos is anti-Septic, but beyond that there's been little sign of wider reprisal against the Faith of the Seven.

The crusade in King’s Landing was just one of a few distractingly un-Thrones-like writing choices in this episode. You pointed out another one, Chris, in the hammy introduction of the Oberyn revenge posse. I mean, really: When Ellaria asks the Sand Snakes if they’ll fight, one of them recounts a father-daughter pep talk they’ve certainly all heard about before, finished with an unnecessary human shish-kabobbing. The Dornish may be "crazy," but these four women presumably have some sort of lifelong rapport; a scene of them private strategizing together shouldn’t come off like a skit between WWE matches, right?

Obara Sand's grandstanding wasn't the only unasked-for monologue in the hour. Stannis, Littlefinger, and Barristan all launched into lengthy info dumps at only the faintest of prompting. And what was with Bronn not enquiring as to the purpose of their mission until apparently bored in the cargo hull of a Pentosi ship?Don’t get me wrong: I love learning more about the characters and the history of the realm, and many of the episode's speeches were executed with panache. But it undermines Thrones’ appeal as a realer, smarter fantasy show when scene after scene seems driven less by how characters would actually behave than by the need for drama or exposition.

I hate to go on nitpicking an episode from first-time writer Dave Hill, a Benioff and Weiss assistant who was promoted after contributing some ideas last season. Now, to say something nice: Good job with the violence, guys! From Jorah's episode-opening coldcock to the ambush in Meereen, the hour's many action scenes thrilled with micro-moments of suspense that reflected the characters’ inner selves. For example, though it was probably inconsequential to the plot, I thought the battle with the Dornish horsemen excitingly reminded us of just how crafty Bronn is and how hobbled Jaime remains. It also suggested a new title for the Kingslayer: Bladegrabber.

There were some solid moments of writing and acting as well. Bronn and Jaime’s breakfast of snakes saw two swashbucklers reflecting on their hopes and dreams in a way that Thrones rarely allows. Littlefinger’s reveal of his big plan for Sansa and her attendant skepticism represented forward movement in their relationship. Jon swallowing his honor to send the Boltons a request for troops demonstrated how he’s maturing into the pragmatist that his father (or, per yall’s tantalizing theories about his parentage, supposed father) never was. And when Melisandre channeled Ygritte’s catchphrase from beyond the grave, I felt as spooked as the Kit Harington looked.

Melisandre also got the honors of delivering this week’s take-home philosophy lesson: “There is only one war: life versus death.” The line foreshadowed Hizdahr zo Loraq’s statement that “all men must die, but not all men must die in glory,” and echoed Jaqen H'ghar’s recent koan: “There is only one god … and all men know his gift.” How fitting that the episode closed with glorious warriors Grey Worm and Barristan bleeding on the ground, engaged in the one true war and possibly about to face the one true god.