Game of Thrones Revisited: 5.03 High Sparrow
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Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And this year, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros, continuing with the debut of Jonathan Pryce as the High Sparrow...
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
One of the criticisms levied against the fifth season of Game of Thrones is that, prior to Hardhome, not a lot happens. Re-watching this season now, it doesn't have the repeated narrative punches of the fourth but there is still plenty to enjoy and High Sparrow is another solid entry filled with intriguing character moments.
The King's Landing scenes in particular are full of powerful, witting dialogue and strong performances as Margaery and Cersei play their games around each other. The happy wedding of Tommen and Margaery is a far cry from the dramatics of her day with Joffrey. Finally, after failed consummated marriages to Renly and Joffrey, she cerments her position as Queen of Westeros with a night of passion with her young (too young?) husband Tommen, who is enraptured by her beauty and his newfound loss of virginity. Of course, this is all she needs to get her hooks into him.
Margaery is in many respects similar to Cersei. She is fond of the young king - love might be too strong a word - but there is an affection with him that she never had with her first two husbands. And like Cersei, she uses Tommen's love for her to manipulate him. Her 'suggestion' that Cersei might be happier out of the way in Casterly Rock immediately sees Tommen make the same suggestion to his mother, setting the alarms bells ringing that her grip on power could soon be lost. There is an insidious war of words between the two women - Margaery and her group of giggling confidants younger, more virile and passionate than Cersei, who is mocked with the title of Queen Mother or Dowager behind fake smiles and platitudes.
It is a dangerous games that sees Cersei seek power and influence elsewhere. Enter the High Sparrow played superbly by Jonathan Pryce. After the High Septon is marched naked from a brothel and humiliated and whipped in the streets by the Sparrows, his pleas that the High Council interject sees Cersei welcome the High Sparrow, sensing the opportunity for change and influence she so desperately craves. Of course they are nothing like each other - he is humble and pragmatic and she is ruthless and scheming - but they both possess an intelligence that will make for a dangerous alliance, one that will bring down her temporary downfall and Margaery's eventual demise at the end of season six.
Talking of dangerous alliances, this episode sees Sansa arrive home to Winterfell as Littlefinger and Lord Bolton ally together, even behind Cersei's back. This will be one of the most controversial and disturbing elements of the season that undoes all the promise gained by Sansa in season four. The end of last season suggested that she would no longer be the victim, but this episode puts her right back into the position and in the grasp of a monster even worse than Joffrey.
Still, Game of Thrones has never been a series where the good guys win and the bad guys loose. It's much more morally dubious than that. And tragedy is a big part of the show, borne by the influences of Medieval history and its grim tales that influenced George RR Martin's novels. Women were often sold into marriage to seal alliances and this is exactly what Littlefinger does here. Of course he manipulates her to no end; the suggestion that she could turn back is an empty platitude that she should have taken, particularly when as the audience you've just seen Winterfell and its enemies skinned alive in a most gruesome fashion. And when she arrives, the danger is all too apparent. She might have the support of some locales, the old woman who mutters the word "the North Remembers" but there are far more deadly adversaries about, from Roose and Ramsey Bolton to Ramsey's cruel, sadistic lover Myranda who soon sets her venomous eyes on his new bride the moment she arrives in Winterfell.
Jon Snow meanwhile navigates the dangers of leadership. While he refuses Stannis's continued offer to be Warden of the North, it is nice to see Davos offer some worldy wisdom the young Commander of the Night's Watch, a role that will flourish in seasons six and seven. But his biggest test in leadership comes from the challenge of the odious and cowardly Janos Slynt, who finally gets his comeuppance when he refuses to heed Jon's commands. The scene as he is marched to the chopping block, accompanied by Ramin Djwadi's rousing score is the episode's huge moment, Slynt begging for mercy before Jon follows in his father's dutiful footsteps and beheads his enemy. It has been a long time coming.
While the scenes with Arya in the House of Black and White fail to offer much drama - though it does introduce the Waif that will become a thorn in the Stark's side for some time to come - there are some other great character moments in this episode. I loved the developing kinship between Brienne and Podrick as they both opened up about their pasts. Her impassioned speech about how Renly saved her from the mockery and abuse of the men who taunted her, reveals her undying love for the dead king, delivered with a lovely, heartfelt performance from Gwendoline Christie.
And finally we have more wonderful interplay between Tyrion and Varys as they arrive in Volantis, the dwarf losing his mind as he travels in secret. The city is gorgeously realised, from the wide river bridges and tight markets, full of life, passion and culture. The encounter with the Red Priestess as she praises the glory of Daenerys and the whores dressed as he Dragon Queen offer differing perspectives on the influences of the Targaryen girl. The final kidnapping of Tyrion by the surprise return of Jorah, offers a new, intriguing direction for both characters for the rest of the season.
High Sparrow is not the most thrilling of episodes but the performances by everyone are superb, particularly, Jonathan Pryce, Lena Heady, Natalie Dormer and Gwendoline Christie. It continues to move pieces around the board, setting up some of the more shocking moments to come this season. The events of this episode will be significant for Tyrion, Cersei and Sansa in the episodes to come...