Jon prepares for conflict. Sansa tries to talk to Theon. Brienne waits for a sign. Stannis (Stephen Dillane) remains stubborn. Jaime attempts to reconnect with family.
In the previous two seasons, the seventh episode has often been momentous in its own right, often creating a cliffhanger-type moment leading into the often-explosive dash to the finish. In some ways, “The Gift” feels similar, featuring a major turning of the tables. In other ways, however, there’s a sense that some stories are treading water, and the writers are getting stretched thin trying to figure out what to do with them. This is a detriment to an otherwise well-constructed episode, because despite visiting all major narrative areas (the only area excluded is Braavos) and doing so in a cohesive way that mostly does not feel rushed, some of what happens in those areas raise questions about just what the writers are thinking.
The most controversial story from the previous episode—that of Sansa, now the plaything of the sadistic Ramsay—remains one of the stronger stories of the show, as the writers don’t shy away from the reality of what would become of such a marriage. However, Sansa Stark is not Jeyne Poole (Ramsay’s victim in the novel), and even though brutalized and abused she strives to find her way out of her dilemma. Not simply trusting in her call to Reek to remember that he is Theon Greyjoy, she takes matters into her own hands by stealing a potential weapon, and then (more interestingly) starts to pry at Ramsay’s confidence in his place as heir to his father, a weak spot that turns on his former illegitimacy and the reality that he could easily be made illegitimate again if his father had it in his mind.
Some will say that this is showing that rape somehow empowers Sansa, but that isn’t what’s happening, in our opinion. Sansa is stronger in will than some will credit. She may not have Arya’s spunky tomboyishness, she may not have a Needle, but she has certainly tasted grief and suffering and abuse and come out the other side still intact in mind and spirit, buffeted but not crushed or destroyed. She still has hope. Her tenacious optimism may make her seem simply naïve but it’s her greatest strength, and the writing of how she proceeds in Winterfell feels true to the character (and the characters, not just hers but that of Ramsay as depicted by the show, and of Reek).
Elsewhere, the threat of rape provide fodder for a “hero moment” for Samwell, but here we think the writers are less successful. Compensating for what seems to have been a failure to create a more organic lead-up to Gilly’s choice to sleep with Sam, the writers play on the idea of the Night’s Watch being filled with rapists. While that is true enough, in its way, its a distinctly heavy-handed approach to things when we know that the same Watch in the novels, similarly noted for its former rapists and criminals, prove rather more benign than, say, Stannis’s own men with the female wildling prisoners.
Had the writers wanted, spending some more time with Aemon, Gilly, and Sam as Aemon’s health deteriorated could have led to more of a sense of grief and loss after his passing, fueling a consummation of their mutual desire. Instead, violence from new characters we’ve never seen before and may well never seen again was the solution.
King’s Landing is largely more rewarding in this episode, despite juggling a number of different scenes touching on all the significant players. Jonathan Pryce is absolutely the highlight of the episode, in fact, as his High Septon spars with Olenna Tyrell and then reveals his intentions to Cersei is a wonderfully well-played scene. The reveal that Lancel has unburdened his sins—all of them—and so revealed Cersei’s own sins leaves the episode on the image of her locked cell door, letting us know that the lioness has been caged.
But speaking of Lancel, many would make the easy assumption that Littlefinger’s scene with Olenna culminated with his telling her about Lancel. We suspect this is not the case at all, however, but rather that this juxtaposition of scenes is simply a bit of misdirection. Who is the “handsome young man”, then, if not Lancel? Our best guess is that it could by Olyver himself, offered up to Olenna to either recant his evidence or perhaps to be the victim of an unfortunate accident before he can testify.
But there’s another idea that we’ve been pondering: could it be Gendry? We’ve not seen the poor blacksmith’s apprentice since season 3, when Davos sent him to row in the general direction of King’s Landing. Did he make it there, only to fall into Littlefinger’s hands? The show has used him as a kind of “proof” of the illegitimacy of Cersei’s children, so arming Olenna with Gendry would surely seem like a potentially big lever… against Cersei. The sticking point is that it’s unclear how it helps the Tyrells deal with the Faith. A trade, Gendry and the “proof” of Tommen’s illegitimacy in return for Margaery and Loras? Something doesn’t seem quite right there.
But I digress. The episode does have a couple of faulty areas. The briefer but more annoying of these is Meereen, where Daenerys and Daario prove to have a fairly light-hearted relationship even in extremity. The angst we were hoping for, the turmoil of warring emotions, has been shoved aside and given us a Daenerys who simply sees her marriage as political and fully expects to be able to keep having a fling with a sellsword of common origins.
Daenerys feels very little like her novelistic counterpart here, to the point that it’s dawned on us that she really isn’t that similar to the source character any longer whereas it felt like she was more or less in the right place for much of the show. It’s odd that such a relatively minor scene drove that home. At least the writers have retained Daario’s advice to her, and Daenerys’s struggle with the idea of becoming a butcher to place her will over the Meereenese.
Jorah and Tyrion, on the other hand, lack some logic in their narrative, suggesting an unusual level of sloppiness. Tyrion is sold for a few coins to be a fighter… but what about the “fortune” from a “cock merchant” that Malko, the slaver, expected? No explanation appears to be needed, as far as the writers are concerned. And then in the fighting pit, why does Daenerys believe that these men that Yezzan is bossing around are free men rather than slaves? And for that matter, why is everyone unchained… except Tyrion, who is kept shackled as if he were a ravening monster?
It’s frightening to think that perhaps the further the writers get into making their own story, the sloppier they get. Is it because of exhaustion and having too much on their plate? Is it because, as they start to move more and more away from the books, they’re simply not up to the task of keeping track of so many small details? Is it just an anomaly and future episodes will be less filled with plot holes? It will be interesting to see what’s to come in the final three episodes of the season.
Besides this, we have to admit being rather underwhelmed at the Tyrion and Daenerys meeting. Yes, fans have been waiting for this to happen for a long time. But the scenario presented feels trite and uninteresting in and of itself, and what the novels seem to be preparing to present—their meeting seems likely to take place after major strife and turmoil on levels far beyond what the show is willing or able to present—will doubtless be much more interesting. In a post-episode interview, Benioff and Weiss present their case for the meeting, namely that they simply couldn’t see themselves delaying it because the characters are too good and interesting to keep apart. But I’d argue that such a momentous meeting could have used a suitably momentous occasion to feel like the haste was deserved.
Last but not least, Dorne. The Jaime and Myrcella scene is a bit of fluff, alas, with little weight behind it. The cell scene with Bronn and the Sand Snakes, on the other hand… has little weight behind it. It’s a well-executed scene, and fleshes out (ahem) Tyene far more so than it has done in the previous episodes. However, on later reflection it becomes clear that the false jeopardy the writers introduce for Bronn feels forced: why exactly is Bronn allowed to live by the Sand Snakes? He’s no one but a man who snuck into their land, killed their men, and attempted to steal away the betrothed of a Dornish prince.
Seeing Bronn go would of course have been sad, but there’d be something poetic in his meaningless death after singing the last lines of “The Dornishman’s Wife”, and it would give that part of the story genuine weight that it has so far lacked to a woeful degree. Instead, the writers make Tyene mercurial enough to give him an antidote for no better reason than he claims (under the duress of having been poisoned!) that she’s the most beautiful woman he’s seen.
It’s a shame that a scene with such a poor foundation is also the best chance for a Sand Snake to be fleshed out, and I suppose one can question that nudity was a requirement of the scene. It works, certainly, and Ms. Sellers sells (sorry) the character’s feigned sweetness and intense sexuality very well indeed… but something more substantial would have been even better for her. And for the other Sand Snakes, who do well with their brief opportunities to roll their eyes but are otherwise given only a line or two more. Is this the last we’ll see of the Sand Snakes? If so, it will be one of the most pointless exercises of the show to have conducted.
The episode covers elements from the following chapters: Samwell II (AFfC), Samwell IV (AFfC), The King’s Prize (ADwD), Tyrion X (ADwD), Daenerys IV (ADwD), and Cersei X (AFfC)
Other scenes of note:
Jon’s departure: Jon does not depart Castle Black for Hardhome in A Dance with Dragons.
Sansa and Reek: This scene feels quite accurate to the Reek of the novel, particularly his revealing to Ramsay that Sansa has plans to escape with the help of inside-sources. However, the scene is an invention of the show.
Sansa and Ramsay: Another scene not from the novels, as Sansa and Ramsay never marry. Sansa’s counterpart in the novels, Jeyne, also does not end up with any similar conversations with Ramsay, nor does she steal a weapon.
Stannis and Melisandre: As previously noted, Melisandre does not accompany Stannis on his campaign, nor does she ever appear to suggest the sacrifice of Shireen to him.
Attack on Gilly: Gilly is never assaulted by brothers of the Watch in the novels, nor is Samwell.
Olenna and the High Sparrow: Olenna is in Highgarden through most of A Feast for Crows, so such a scene does not take place in the novels.
Cersei and Tommen: The novels do not feature a similar scene, as Tommen is much younger in the books and subsequently less concerned and involved in such matters. Cersei’s offer to speak to the High Septon to try and resolve matters is inspired by a similar claim from Cersei in Cersei X.
Jaime and Myrcella: Jaime never goes to Dorne, so such a scene never takes place in the novels. One detail of note is Myrcella’s claim that she has been in Dorne for “years”. In the novels, the span of time between her leaving King’s Landing for Dorne and the attempt of Princess Arianne to crown her (the closest equivalent to the show’s own conspiracy plot) is slightly more than six months, according to most estimates. On the show, there’s little sense that years have actually passed, so her statement can be considered an exaggeration.
Bronn and the Sand Snakes: Similarly, Bronn is not in Dorne so such a scene does not take place. The poison Tyene names is an invention of the show. The lyrics to “The Dornishman’s Wife” are, however, accurate. So, too, is Tyene’s interest in and skill with poisons, the weapon that her father Oberyn taught her, although in many other respects Tyene is very different from the character in the novels.
Littlefinger and Olenna: This scene does not take place in the novels, as Littlefinger remains in the Vale while Olenna remains in Highgarden after having left King’s Landing following Tommen’s marriage to Margaery.
The Fighting Pit: This scene of preliminary fighting in the pits, witnessed by Daeenrys, is an invention of the show. The circumstances by which Jorah and Tyrion are to appear before Daenerys are quite different in the novels, and Daenerys is not aware either of them are in the vicinity of Meereen by the end of A Dance with Dragons.