May 3, 2015, 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
One of the chief challenges facing Game of Thrones is just how much the narrative it is adapting is one of constant build-up and expansion, wave upon wave of potentially necessary exposition and newly important characters to introduce. The show has handled this burden with varying levels of success (sexposition? Usually a negative. Long monologues about history and tradition? Often more successful), but its one that isn’t going away soon. The show has basically hacked out the Iron Islands plotline from A Feast For Crows entirely, but it is still left introducing Dorne, its culture and major players, expanding Braavos, and continuing to develop all of the dozens of locales and characters already in play. It can leave things feeling a little unwieldy. It can also leave episodes feeling somewhat obligatory, like they are checking boxes off a list of characters they need to show and plotlines that have to move forward.
Often, episodes transcend that notion by tying together all the disparate threads with a thematic or plot concern that runs through several storylines. In “Sons of the Harpy,” we watch the Faith Militant rampage through King’s Landing to restore a sense of religious order to the City, and we see the Sons of the Harpy wreak havoc in an attempt to regain all of the power and privilege they have lost. The old ways are asserting their authority against a world that is struggling to change. The powerful do not loose their grip on their positions easily. Real change is a difficult, almost always bloody affair. This has some powerful real world resonance at the moment, but it is also deeply tied to the story being told here, an epic tale about the slow, painful evolution of both systems and people. Change doesn’t come easy, and it almost always comes at a price.
It’s early to say at this point, but I have a feeling the show’s decision to shift Jaime’s quest may prove to be one of the smartest departures from the source material (in the books, Jaime spends a lot of time cleaning up messes in the Riverlands in a plotline that tentatively promises further evolutions for the character but seems to be at a bit of a stand still). Sending Jaime to Dorne to “rescue” Myrcella gives the character real purpose and a clear avenue for further evolution. He has to reconcile his status as her father with his own (often necessary) distance, and he must further figure out who he is now that he is estranged from Cersei and clearly second fiddle to Bronn in a fight. Of course, this story could implode next week, but for now, it shows promise to actually further Jaime’s evolution, and gives the show an excuse to spend more time developing Dorne than it might otherwise afford.
The sword fight Jaime and Bronn get embroiled in is just one of several big setpieces that give the episode most of its meat, alongside the aforementioned Faith Militant ransacking the brothel and threatening the King, and the fight between the Unsullied and the Sons of the Harpy. All three move the plot forward in addition to showing off the series’ canny sense of fight choreography, but the Faith Militant and the Sons of the Harpy make more important thematic points in addition to being a good excuse for some swinging of swords. Cersei’s reintroduction of the Faith Militant doesn’t necessarily make sense here (in the books, she is basically coerced into allowing this by the High Sparrow), since her plan basically seems to be to consolidate her own form of power by manipulating a man who by every indication seems impossible to manipulate. She is forging an alliance that cannot possibly end the way she hopes, and the show isn’t spending enough time developing her desperation or indicating whether she even recognizes the risk inherent in giving this huge amount of power and force back to the church. This whole plotline feels a little rushed and a little discombobulated at this point, with the High Sparrow not registering enough (despite the fact that it is Jonathan Pryce!), Cersei’s thinking remaining too opaque, and the Faith Militant’s brutality escalating a bit too quickly.
While Cersei’s motivations are cloudy, Stannis’ remain incredibly clear. His scene with Shireen tonight is one of the best the character has ever had, just for the way it humanizes a man who can be incredibly cold and regimented. Stannis fights for what he thinks is right, but also, when it came down to it, he fought for his daughter, fought to keep her alive and at his side. He loves her (more than his wife does), and that little moment of humanity does wonders for the character.
“Sons of the Harpy” is, in a lot of ways, a table-setting episode dressed up with a few action scenes to paper over the fact that not a lot happens (in fact, if Barristan and Grey Worm both survive that fight, none of the action sequences really move the plot forward, so much as they just exist because factions on this show fight a lot). Yet it unspools some important exposition very well, and also provides two great action sequences that will stick in my memory for a while. It’s not an episode that accomplishes much, nor is it one with large ambition. But it lays necessary groundwork with aplomb, stylishly managing to check off those boxes without ever feeling too rote. Not a whole lot moves forward this week, but five years into this show, its not always a bad thing to just see what everybody is up to.
- “Your niece?”
- “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
- “I’ve had an exciting life. I want my death to be boring.”
- “How many do you count?” “Four.” “How many do you think you could take?” “One…if he’s slow.”
- “Corpses raise questions, questions raise armies.”
- SPOILERS: The show does a lot of work this evening towards developing the popular theory (that I also happen to hold) that Jon Snow is in fact the child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Stannis mentions he has never believed Ned Stark would father a bastard, Littlefinger talks about Rhaegar’s fondness for Lyanna (in a nice bit of backstory I was worried the show might elide entirely), and Barristan also mentions Rhaegar as more of a lover than a fighter. That’s a lot of groundwork laid in this single episode, but it makes me think it wasn’t done for nothing.
“Sons of the Harpy” is, in a lot of ways, a table-setting episode dressed up with a few action scenes to paper over the fact that not a lot happens