The third episode of Game of Thrones season five wrestles with complex notions of religion, power, spirituality, virtue, and service. The titular plot is the introduction of the High Sparrow (also the name of this week’s episode), whose story is about returning the Faith of the Seven to a devout and holy state in King’s Landing, and bringing penance to the sinners of the Seven Kingdoms. If all this is true, why the hell would Twin of The Year Winner Cersei Lannister align with them? Forget Bruce Jenner, someone tell Diane Sawyer to interview Cersei!
High Sparrow offers its audience a buffet of Westerosi, Braavosi and Volantene religion. It asks the question, who do you answer to? God? Kings? Man? We’re exposed to an entire spectrum of beliefs across continents, and civilizations. The more rigid is the religion of High Sparrow and the Westerosi, the Faith of the Seven founded among the Andals. This polytheistic faith worships seven different gods representing different virtues exalted in their societies. The more common religion in Volantis worships R’hllor, the Lord of Light. This monotheistic faith worships R’hllor, the god with a fiery heart who will save the world from the Great Other, the god of ice and death. Then there’s the Faceless Men of Braavosi, who basically worship every god out there, from the Seven, to the Drowned God of the Iron Islands, with the idea that in the end the many faces of death come for everyone. If any of this “monotheists vs. polytheists” zealotry feels familiar, we’re right there with you. Battlestar Gallactica gave a very modern take on the trope a few years back. Perhaps it’s true what they say – all this has happened before, and all this will happen again!
When we first meet the High Sparrow, (portrayed perfectly by Jonathan Price), he’s serving food to the hungry and ministering to those in need. The Queen Regent is questioning him on the recent assaults against the High Septon, to which the High Sparrow retorts that he “wouldn’t presume to know your thoughts on the matter.” Without knowing it, he’s played Cersei like a fiddle. She doesn’t think he’s invested in politics, and that through his pious nature he can be easily manipulated. Indeed, faith and crown go hand in hand but always with a separation of power. By removing the High Septon and placing him in the dungeons, Cersei is toying with a delicate balance that may very well come back to haunt her.
This episode is far more than just a romp through the religions of the world. There were also literal romps involved! Perhaps Benioff and Weiss finally read all the nerdbastards fan-mail? Regardless, our prayers were answered with the triumphant return of Sir Pounce!
Oh, just kidding – that was actually King Tommen losing his maiden’s head to the royal Pokémon trainer we call Margery Tyrell-Baratheon-Baratheon-Baratheon! Dear The Emmy’s, at your earliest convenience please delivery tiny statues to Natalie Dormer for playing up one of the most underused characters from the Song of Fire & Ice book series. Watching Dormer bring Margery to life and subtly spar with The Queen Regent week after week is worth that HBO Go account we’re stealing from our parents – every damn penny! Yes, religion is important but as we learned so long ago from Cersei, Ms. Lannister-If-You’re-Nasty, is that at the end of the day it’s all about power. Yes, we know where this “Queen-off” is headed because we read the books but there’s been ample talk of how this season will take certain liberties so who knows!?
Sansa Stark also has a lesson in power. It turns out Littlefinger is marrying her off to Ramsey Bolton, son and heir to Roose Bolton, Warden of the North. You remember him, right? Trust us, we were shocked too Sansa. Jean Poole seems to have not made it to the screen adaptation, but this creates a very particular new story for Sansa, one much more interesting than partying in the Vale of Arryn with her cousin. She has a chance to serve justice to the Boltons from the inside. Littlefinger tells her to stop being a bystander, woman-up and avenge her family! Again, if you suddenly imaged Sansa going full Scarjo with some guns and body armor you were not alone! She might need both – the camera lingered a little too long on Ramsey’s psycho girlfriend from season three so there may be conflict yet! Of course as we’re reminded, “the north remembers” eluding that Lady Stark may still have allies in Winterfell, and not just Brienne and Podrick miles behind in a training montage.
Sansa’s not the only Stark child on the ropes this season – her sister Arya, and half-brother Jon both have equally challenging scenarios thrown their way! Jon is now the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and part of that job entails demanding respect. Coming off the heels of last week’s pep talk from Stannis about super important stuff like, he gets publically challenged when Janos Slynt refuses an order. Power is a slippery slope in that it demands a certain amount of upkeep, sort of like really long hair or a beard (hint hint, Jon). Stannis was right, unless your men fear a little they won’t respect you. Lord Commander Snow makes an example of Slynt and beheads him with Longclaw before the rest of the Night’s Watch.
Arya’s struggle is also with her sword, or rather her struggle to let it both Needle and her past go. In order to become a Faceless Man, she must first purge herself of all that makes her Arya Stark; the clothes, the sword, her family, indeed her entire journey up to this point. She must become “a girl” instead – a complete abandon of power, in exchange of a new kind of power – anonymity. Longtime readers of the books will appreciate that in this screen adaptation she hides away her sword, and retains a small piece of Arya for a rainy day.
Tyrion Lannister struggles with sanity in this episode, complaining that he might go mad unless he see’s another face other than Varys‘. We don’t blame him, we’ve driven cross country in a Fiat – the struggle is real. Coincidentially they make a pit-stop in Volantis, where they see a host of Volantene culture like slavery, and more slavery! They even take in a local sermon from a Red Priestess played by always-creepily awesome Rila Fukushima, who you might recognize from all those mullet-flashbacks on Arrow. She deliveres a sermon that is actually very important, and takes the place of several key realizations in the books from characters like Aemon Targaryen, and Moqorro. The much prophecized Azor Ahai, the savior promised by R’hllor who will fight the darkness, is actually Daenerys Targaryen, not Stannis Baratheon. Sorry about it Melissandre, but there’s a new prophecy in town! We barely have enough time to process this tasty morcel before we see Jorah Mormont bear-snatch Tyrion in a burlap sack while he’s taking a piss. You know, if we had a dollar for everytime that’s thats happen to us…
High Sparrow sets many plots into motion that are going to be game-changers for season five, most notably Sansa’s homecoming, Cersei’s sparrow infestation, and Tyrion’s introduction to Daenerys. It also supplants different takes on established lore and prophecy, which have the potential for major payoff this season as the show’s timeline surpasses the books. Next week’s episode, “Sons of the Harpy” continues this trend and gives us a more indepth look at the conflicts in King’s Landing, Dorne and Meereen with new and exciting twists!
Game of Thrones airs Sunday nights on HBO.