In Braavos, Arya sees the Many-Faced God. In King’s Landing, Queen Margaery enjoys her new husband. Tyrion and Varys walk the Long Bridge of Volantis.
“High Sparrow” is in many ways a marked improvement from the episodes that came before it: most of the stories have some significant plot or character action at their heart, with the introductory period of the first two episodes more-or-less done with. While new characters do get introduced—most notably the eponymous High Sparrow, played by a spry Jonathan Pryce channeling a bit of St. Francis of Assisi but with hints of Torquemada—they’re done in a way that doesn’t detract from the narrative, and indeed helps to enhance the stories we see.
Directed by newcomer-to-the-show Mark Mylod, the story moves quite effortlessly from scene to scene, and this time around the writers have managed to cut out (most) of the padding to turn in a tight story that generally doesn’t feel like it’s dragging. Although Meereen has been consistently one of the better storylines this season, leaving it on the wayside for one episode was the correct choice so that other sections of the narrative could breath. The Wall, briefer than last season, was certainly the overall highlight this episode, adapting a famous scene from A Dance with Dragons with the usual, explicable compressions and shortcuts (and one inexplicable absence; I wouldn’t say “Edd, fetch me a block,” is up there with “Only Cat,” but failing to at least show Jon’s brief flirtation with a very un-Stark-like method of execution seems strange).
Even Cersei’s section of the story was largely enjoyable. On consideration, this has to do with the fact that with the removal of Jaime from King’s Landing. As we noted in previous episode reviews, the showrunners have been twisting and turning Cersei and Jaime to suit their needs, and the characters felt in many ways completely opposite of where the exact same characters, under largely similar circumstances, are in the novels; that sort of characterization, defined by providing convenient ways for the writers to get characters where they want to be, feels cheap and all-too-often the result of poor planning despite having a “bible” that lets them know where characters are going years in advance.
With Jaime gone, Cersei … doesn’t shine, exactly; Lena Headey’s Cersei glowers rather than glows. But without the counterpoint of Jaime, the radically different Cersei of the show feels more acceptable: far more muted than her counterpart in the novels, who became a point-of-view character in this season’s (increasingly loosely) corresponding novel A Feast for Crows and whose inner workings were thoroughly explored therein, but palatable. So when she takes her jabs at Margaery, that feels like the sort of cattiness that characterizes the character. And the basic idea of her approach to Margaery makes sense: sensing through Tommen’s clumsy efforts that it’s Margaery’s doing. Testing the waters, seeing how Queen Margaery behaves, perhaps even implying she’s accepted defeat, it’s reasonable politicking for the character… though the meekness, we have to say, with which she makes the approach is a long, long way from Martin’s Cersei. False smiles and affected cheer would suit that character better.
The other part of Cersei’s storyline features a low point for the episode—the needlessly and ridiculously gratuitous nudity of the “Seven” in Littlefinger’s brothel, including one of the most deliberately lascivious shots we’ve ever had on the show (one suspects the hand of the executive producer with an affinity for the “perverts” in the audience, as Neil Marshal recounted after having directed “Blackwater”)—and then the introduction of the High Sparrow. Our only qualm there is the complete loss of any sense of the “sparrows” as a social movement responding to the horrors of the War of the Five Kings, the way their story is reflected throughout A Feast for Crows, a book which dives deep into the ugliness of the aftermath of a civil war.
Much of what there is in the episode is good, particularly those that (of course) hew close to the model of the books. Jon’s scenes, for example, or Arya’s. Less successful, we think, are the Brienne and Podrick scenes: not because of any great issue with the writing and performance, but simply the recognition that Podrick’s tale of his past has much less impact when it comes from the show’s amiable idiot rather than the novel’s shy child. Brienne’s story, on the other hand, clearly builds on matter hinted at previously as she dwells on the death of the beloved Renly Baratheon and her thirst for vengeance against Stannis Baratheon for that death. It’s well-told, and a clever adaptation of material from the novels.
All that said, not everything hewed close to the novels, as the bevy of notable scenes not drawn from the novels in the Book-to-Screen section of this guide shows. And yet, for whatever qualms we may have about one storyline in particular, the best scene of the episode comes from a very, very radical adaptation choice: Littlefinger revealing his intentions to Sansa of seeing her married to Ramsay Bolton. Those qualms are very real, and we’re mightily concerned about just how the writers plan to go about it, and for that matter we take some serious issue with the choice of again presenting an idiot Littlefinger to make such an action convenient. And yet…
And yet, it’s a very fine scene, with Aidan Gillen’s best performance since the first season, and a very strong performance by Sophie Turner. When we first realized what was going on in the trailers, and began to suspect where the story was going, we were as shocked as anyone and absolutely dubious. Now… well, we’re still very dubious. Sure, an adaptation needs its shortcuts, but it feels to us like the story isn’t taking Sansa anywhere in the direction of Martin’s intended journey, instead a sort of Frankenstein’s Monster of disparate story threads from the last two novels (and perhaps a dash of The Winds of Winter, although in a perversely altered way) all shoved together into one potentially horrifying package.
But that scene? It’s a great scene.
The episode covers the following chapters: Arya I (AFfC), Cersei III (AFfC), elements of Brienne III + Brienne IV (AFfC), Arya II (AFfC), Jon II (ADwD), and Tyrion VI (ADwD)
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
- Arya I (AFfC): The depiction of the interior of the House of Black and White, including the petitioners/worshippers who drink from the pool and whose bodies can be found throughout the temple before they’re taken away, is largely close to the novel. The chief difference lies in there being many more gods in the novel’s temple.
- Cersei III (AFfC): Tommen and Margaery wed in this chapter, but the dynamics are very different on the show due to the aging up of Margaery and Tommen. Cersei’s jealousy and concern over Margaery winning over Tommen is drawn from the novels, however, where she blocks attempts to have the boy share a bed with Margaery (chastely, of course).
- Brienne III + Brienne IV (AFfC): Although the plot action of the Brienne story is radically different from what there was in A Feast for Crows, the two stories of the past that the characters off to one another are drawn either directly or nearly directly (in the case of Brienne) from the books. Podrick leaves out Lorimer’s nickname of the Belly, and certain details of his role in guarding the provisions, which gave him access to them. Podrick also does not describe his familial situation as he does in the novels, where he reveals his father died in the Greyjoy Rebellion and his mother abandoned him, leaving him to squire for a kinsman who then died in the War of the Five Kings, leading to his attachment to the hedge knight Lorimer. Brienne’s narrative is loosely inspired by events that took place at Highgarden in the span between A Game of Thrones and Renly marching to Bitterbridge in A Clash of Kings, where a group of knights pretended to like her as part of a secret wager over who could claim her maidenhood. The truth was revealed to her by Lord Tarly, whose son Dickon overheard the men joking about “Brienne the Beauty”. Renly’s dancing with her, drawn from Brienne I (AFfC), was part of his lord’s progress when he came of age, and was simply a sign of his easy generosity and courtesy rather than in response to her mistreatment.
- Arya II (AFfC): The waif is notably different in appearance from the character in the novel, whose growth and physical maturity was stunted by an attempt to poison her when she was young. The “game of faces” is called the “lying game” in the novel. Arya does indeed give up everything but for Needle, as on the show, and then soon after she begins to help with dealing with the corpses. The reason for their care, and what the House of Black and White does with them, remains in A Feast for Crows, although A Dance with Dragons resolves it.
- Jon II (ADwD): The details are fairly close to the novel, although Jon works to man the majority of the Night’s Watch castles, and he speaks with the chosen commanders privately rather than commanding them to their posts publicly. In the novel, it’s the next morning when Slynt is clearly refusing to go that Jon gives him a last chance and, when refused, orders Slynt hanged from the Wall. However, part way through he realizes that he is not doing it as he should, and calls to Dolorous Edd for a chopping block. Slynt does call for mercy at the end, but does not go on to speak of being afraid, and Jon barely pauses at the begging. Another change of note: Alliser Thorne is not named First Ranger in the novels, as that office is given to Black Jack Bulwer. Thorne receives no particular office from Jon.
- Tyrion VI (ADwD): The most notable absence, of course, is that Tyrion does not reach Volantene territory in the company of Griff, Young Griff, and their motley company, but this has been clearly the case since the start of the season. In the novel, the key scenes—witnessing a red priest preach to slaves in support of Daenerys, the brothel, the abduction—all take place in Selhorys, a city that is part of Volantis’s territory. Tyrion does bed a prostitute while in Selhorys, rather than being reticent as in the show, and in fact he uses her badly, part of his continuing self-destructive, nilhilistic behavior in the wake of what happened to him, rather than just the put-upon lush that he’s currently portrayed as. When he returns to the room, he sees a man with a Lyseni slave on his lap, with the silver-blond Valyrian hair… and this proves to be Jorah, who seizes him soon after when he recognizes him. Unlike on the show, there is no prostitute carrying on as a Daenerys impersonator.
Other scenes of note:
Boltons in Winterfell: In the Prince of Winterfell (ADwD) chapter, when the Boltons arrive in Winterfell there are squatters. Lord Bolton forces them to rebuild the defenses of the castle, with the promise that he’ll show them mercy. When the work is done, he has them hanged, but skips flaying them, being a man of his word.
Sansa and Littlefinger: As noted in our analysis, this is an incredible departure from the novels, a radical reformulation of Sansa’s journey. Instead of being betrothed to Harry Hardyng and possibly becoming Lady of the Vale, she is now on course to become Ramsay’s bride.
Jon, Stannis, and Davos: Jon’s refusal of Stannis’s offer is no shown on the page, but unlike the somewhat magnanimous Stannis of the show, the Stannis of the novel grinds his teeth over the matter and will not let it go. As we have noted before, Davos’s presence in Castle Black is purely a show invention. Finally, Olly replaces Satin—a former male prostitute—as Jon Snow’s steward.
Sansa and the Boltons: Another scene not from the novels, although the serving woman telling Sansa, “The North remembers,” is clearly a nod to A Dance with DragonsThe High Septon: As noted, this scene does not happen in the novels. The High Septon in the books is an old wisp of a man, appointed to his office while Tyrion acted as Hand of the King, and because of this Cersei has him smothered in his bed.
Cersei and the High Sparrow: As noted, in the novels Cersei has no direct role in the election of the High Septon, and does not meet the High Sparrow until after this happens, when she wishes to discuss the crown’s debts. Notably, debt is not an issue that appears to be a foremost concern for Cersei. Instead, her interest appear solely to do with stripping Margaery of influence and power.
Cersei and Qyburn: Cersei appears to be considering recalling Littlefinger to King’s Landing, which if so plays with an idea from Cersei II (AFfC) where she ponders appointing him as master of coin once more to secure more revenues.
Littlefinger and the Boltons: This material is not from the novels. Littlefinger’s failure to learn anything about Ramsay seems incongruous, given his mode of operation and details that we know about him, but this seems a deliberate effort wave away any strong objections.