The Faith Militant grow increasingly aggressive. Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) head south. Ellaria (Indira Varma) and the Sand Snakes vow vengeance.
Action beats aren’t always plot-advancing, as one of the fights featured this episode shows, but the one that ends it certainly does, ending as it does with something of a cliffhanger. That final sequence seems to be the sole reason that the six minutes of Meereen attached to the tail-end of episode four got its title, “Sons of the Harpy,” suddenly foregrounding this internal threat to Daenerys’s rule after some forty minutes of anything-but-Meereen that preceded it. And it works, acting as it does as a short, sharp shock to the system that finally makes Daenerys’s plight seem substantial and quite real.
The juxtaposition of that attack with another upstart group—the black-clad, chain-wrapped men with religious symbols carved into their foreheads—certainly seems deliberate, but presenting very different origins. The Faith Militant owes its renewed existence to Cersei’s machinations, a deliberate attempt to turn the Faith against her perceived enemies in House Tyrell, whereas the sons of the harpy exist solely because of Daenerys’s well-intentioned but dangerously underprepared effort to alleviate the suffering caused by the slave trade in Slaver’s Bay. In a way, by being able to piece together the chronology of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, Benioff and Weiss are highlighting intended parallels that Martin seeded into the novel.
And though that action sequence at the end is a significant departure, it feels like a cut—cutting short Barristan’s story as they cut out much of the larger, “international” scope of Daenerys’s troubles in the novels, a scope that (as those who’ve read A Dance with Dragons know) stretches to cover a siege, naval fleets, sellsword companies, and what is ultimately a war. Barristan’s death—or at least apparent death, but we’re confident that he is in fact dead—was given a suitably heroic depiction, particularly with the scoring (sadly, not one of Ramin Djawadi’s better pieces, but it was a game effort), and those last few minutes of him on screen reminded us how underutilized Ian McElhinney had been. His character expressed more in a minute of dialogue with Daenerys and then his noble death than he had the entirety of the last season. It’s the curse of being a secondary character in a show that barely has room for its primary characters.
Better than that denouement, however, was a wholly-unexpected scene of a father connecting with his daughter, and revealing how much he loved her. Who would have thought, coming into this season, that Stephen Dillane would have at a scene like this? His Stannis Baratheon has often been pulled this way and that by Melisandre and Davos, seeming less an agent of his own fate and more a puppet of it, and Dillane has certainly been able to capture Stannis’s grim humourlessness in the face of that. But when Kerry Ingram’s Shireen enters, the writing—credited to newcomer Dave Hill, though as we all know Benioff and Weiss have direct input on everything—seems to go to a new level for Stannis.
The quip about what Lord Steffon said about boredom, for example, is responded to with just the right level of insight as Shireen connects the dots and realizes that her father, too, must have been often bored as a boy, and said as much. And it goes further, as Stannis talks of the doll the Dornishman brought, how he assumed he’d be an easy mark—and then proves that, yes, he was. These are simple tools of a writer’s trade, to get from point A to point C without explicitly making note of point B, but very effective.
As was the close of that scene, as Stannis shows that his iron will, his refusal to bend or surrender, extends to seeing his daughter survive her disease and (more importantly, perhaps) seeing her remain with him, her father who loves her but has so often proved unable or unwilling to express it. The hug, the beat, and it’s returns is perfect. It’s one of the most moving scenes the show has provided in five seasons, and one of the most welcome.
Other stories continue apace, and not all are equal—Tyrion and Jorah works well enough, especially as Iain Glen gets a chance to play especially rough and gruff (feeling just a bit more like the Jorah Mormont of the novels, truth be told), and Jon’s scenes… Well, they give Harington reason to play some of Jon’s quandaries now that he’s lord commander and has to depend on help from men who destroyed his family, and that was well done. The Melisandre scene, however, feels like a very strained effort to get “the Dutchie” to disrobe yet again.
The real heart of this episode, despite its title, is in King’s Landing as Cersei schemes and plots. Again, with Jaime away to Dorne, it’s easier to take Headey’s Cersei, and the use of Tommen by the show works nicely by giving him enough agency to actually try to do something, but leave him too weak-willed and inexperienced to do anything effective against his mother (and, truth be told, his wife; she works very hard to control him, and the only reason she fails is her dawning realization that he’s a weak reed, too young and timid to be able to assert himself on her behalf). There are some clever turns as well, such as having her send Mace to Braavos… while making sure that Meryn Trant is his escort, an implicit threat to him that he’s too much of egotistical dullard to recognize, apparently.
But when it comes to the revival of the Faith Militant, we have to say we’re disappointed by the warping of their context, their history and purpose and even their religion, to create something not unlike a Westerosi Taliban. Yes, it makes for a simple, effective imagery when they beat fornicators, smash barrels of booze, destroy icons of foreign gods, and arrest homosexuals, but it again loses such nuance that the Faith now look little more than a fascist organization hell-bent on absolute moral control of King’s Landing and the Seven Kingdoms beyond.
Largely it seems this turn of the Faith Militant into a group of brutal, violent zealots—away from the somewhat nobler, more complicated military orders of the past—is to justify that last particular item in the list of their antics: persecution of homosexuals. It means, first, another visit into the brothel, and so more naked flesh, which pleases the lowest common denominator. But then it changes scene to the Red Keep, where the Faith Militant march through steps and walkways to where Ser Loras Tyrell spars and proceed to arrest him for his “sin”. This serves to connect the High Sparrow business with the Tyrells more quickly than in the novels… but also far more bluntly.
There’s a significant problem with this, however, in our mind: the fact that Loras Tyrell is basically reduced to being “the gay knight”, has largely been portrayed this way with unfailing consistency, and now his plot role is again defined by his sexuality. Over the seasons, his character has largely been defined by his homosexuality. The very first scene with him this season turned on it. The character has been reduced to a signpost by the writers, and that’s a shame, especially considering Finn Jones’s efforts to try and portray the more fully fleshed Loras of the novels as best he can within the confines of the script. Certainly, secondary characters often fall by the wayside on the show, but turning him into the axle by which a key plot pivots would have surely worked better if he was more than just a signifier of homosexuality and if viewers had been given reason to be invested in his character.
Finding Cersei more palatable because of Jaime’s absence, turning back to his story as he reaches Dorne finds us again scratching our heads. Is this not a case where the writers have very clearly forced a storyline that did not fit the character they had adapted and built over four seasons? Jaime’s inability to articulate why he, specifically, needs to go on this mission despite the fact that he is aware that he is an enormous liability and when he believes his daughter is in grave danger seems like very clear evidence that the writers themselves can’t really articulate it. “He wants to redeem himself” is all well and good, but not when he knows he’s almost certainly dooming the mission to failure and Myrcella, and perhaps himself, to possible or even probable death.
It’s senseless, and yet it’s forced on them by refusing to simply have Cersei order him to go. Why not have her do it? Because it would work against their efforts to make her more level-headed, more capable, than her novelistic counterpart, presumably. And, perhaps, to set up something else down the road that some are speculating on. For our part, we think the particular convolutions needed to get Jaime to where he is is quite enough without throwing out yet more, but who knows if the writers agree.
(And to digress: similar convolutions have been proposed to explain a different storyline, namely Sansa’s, and in particular how Littlefinger could decide to sell her to the Boltons for his alliance given what a monster Ramsay is. The solution of the writers is that Ramsay’s atrocities are unknown to someone with Littlefinger’s resources and obvious interest in learning what he could of Sansa’s potential betrothed. That this strains a viewer’s credulity—given the hundreds or even thousands who witnessed Ramsay’s flayings and butchery at first hand at Moat Cailin, at Winterfell, at Castle Cerwyn, and doubtless elsewhere—is no surprise, but given the obvious willingness of the writers to break consistency to get where they want to get, it should be no surprise. It’s an incredibly complex machine, this story, and with the need to cut, pare down, and devise short cuts for, it can be expected that sometimes they’ll hope viewers don’t think too much about their solutions.
And yet, there are those who are surprised that this has been part of the modus operandi of the writers since, perhaps, the second season when Littlefinger conveniently jaunted from Storm’s End to Harrenhal without coming anywhere near King’s Landing—characters move at the speed of plot, and characters at times act according to the needs of plot, and that’s just how it is. Those who are surprised and then deny it concoct a narrative in which Littlefinger lies to Ramsay about not knowing what a monster he is. Why? No idea. And if Ramsay’s atrocities are something Littlefinger could know… why would Ramsay also perform for him, acting as a sweet, lovable heir to the Dreadfort? Wouldn’t it better serve Littlefinger to let them know he knows, either to tell them to make sure no harm comes to Sansa or it will jeopardize the alliance, or perhaps to reassure them that he doesn’t care about Sansa and that nothing they do to her will put the alliance in jeopardy?
We’re again reminded of season 3’s efforts by some fans to connect dots to “prove” that Talisa was actually a Lannister spy. They were absolutely wrong, but were largely born out of attempts by viewers dissatisfied with Talisa’s existence to justify her presence. Similarly, efforts to figure out how Littlefinger is really just being sneaky and clever appears born out of a similar dissatisfaction.
But that is a digression.)
This leaves us with the rest of Dorne, namely the introduction of the Sand Snakes. To say we find them a disappointment is an understatement. Ellaria has almost all the lines, and two-thirds of the Sand Snakes are reduced to one or two lines. The only Sand Snake with anything more, Obara, is weighted down by the theatrical staging of the scene as she could as easily be speaking to the air as to anyone else about her past, pacing away from them as they look on silently. There’s such an immense lack of connection that we find it hard to believe that the writers intend for them to be anything but Ellaria’s bad-girl muscle, which is a shame, since we know Keisha Castle-Hughes at least is a capable actress (and, one expects, so are her compatriots).
We’re not going to pretend that the Sand Snakes presented in the books have tremendous depth. They are tertiary characters. And yet with what Martin gave them, you could distinguish each in personality, temperament, approach. You learned something about relationships—not just between one another, but with others, with people who aren’t family. They had the beginning of a history, and so stand out in memory rather better than . . . this.
We would absolutely love to be proved wrong, of course. Perhaps the back half of the season will enrich the characters and make them seem as something more than blank-faced minions of Ellaria. We aren’t going to hold our breath, however.
The episode covers the following chapters: Tyrion VII (ADwD), part of Cersei IV (AFfC) + detail Epilogue (ADwD), Cersei VI (AFfC) Faith Militant, Jon II (ADwD) letters, element Daenerys II (ADwD)
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Other scenes of note:
Jaime and Bronn: As noted previously, neither character travels to Dorne in the novels. In particular, Bronn’s apparent acceptance of the claims Jaime fathered Cersei’s children, as well as Jaime being involved in Tyrion’s release, are not in the novels.
The Faith Militant rampage: In the novels, the restoration of the Faith Militant entails the restoration of the two former orders, the Warrior’s Sons and the Poor Fellows. Here, they are compressed to one fanatical group, carving seven-pointed stars into their foreheads, and they are far more pro-active in their “defense” of the Faith, as the Faith Militant in the novels does not concern itself with the sins of the common folk (e.g. drinking, whoring, homosexuality, worship of gods other than the Seven).
Loras’s arrest: The arrest of Ser Loras by the Faith is an invented storyline of the show. Particularly noteworthy is that this indicates a departure from the Faith as presented in the novels, which Martin has previously indicated sees homosexuality as a minor sin. The Faith under the High Sparrow is more stringent in various areas, but is not characterized by any anti-homosexual sentiment.
Stannis, Selyse, and Melisandre: Invented for the show, the exchanges shown here are not in the novels. Keeping with past episodes, Melisandre emphasizes Shireen’s royal blood to Selyse. Stannis’s musing on Jon Snow’s parentage is also new to the television series. Finally, Melisandre insists that Stannis take him with her on his march against the Boltons, whereas in the novels there’s no question that she’s to remain at the Wall.
Jon and Melisandre: Other than the “You know nothing” line, inspired by Jon I (ADwD), the scene is invented. Melisandre does not attempt to seduce Jon in that particular fashion.
Stannis and Shireen: An invented scene for the show, it suggests that Shireen was saved through the efforts of maesters and healers, while in the novels the implication is that the course of the disease stopped where it was without outside intervention. That said, the idea that Stannis may well have called for all the maesters and healers he could find seems to fit his character well. Also of note, it is indicated that the stone men—the name given to those in the final stages of the grayscale affliction—reside in the ruins of Valyria on the show, whereas in the novels they are found in the ruins of Chroyane on the Rhoyne.
Sansa and Littlefinger: An invented scene for the show, although it draws most of its Harrenhal details from from Eddard XV (AGoT). Notably, Littlefinger’s claim to have been present (along with the Tullys, apparently) is not something from the books, where it seems none of the Tully household were actually present.
Ellaria and the Sand Snakes: As already noted, Ellaria is very changed from the novels, and such a meeting never takes place there—the Sand Snakes and Ellaria are all taken into custody at Doran’s command before they can launch any bids to force a war, seek revenge, or (in Ellaria’s case) use her or her younger children in such a pursuit. Obara’s story is, however, based on Obara’s narrative of how her father came to her in the Captain of the Guards (AFfC). Material from HBO from outside of the show suggests that her background has been changed, making her mother a Dornish peasant woman rather than the Oldtown prostitute of the novel.
Barristan and Daenerys: Barristan does speak of Rhaegar’s love of music in Daenerys IV (ASoS), but the story that he often went into the city to sing on the streets is not from the novels. Rhaegar is presented in the novels as having been quite serious and melancholy in general, burdened with the tragedy that marked his birth and a sense of destiny, and while he loved singing and had a harp with silver strings, he often sang melancholy songs, sometimes in the ruins of Summerhall itself. Finally, it would be likely that Ser Arthur Dayne—noted in the novels as Rhaegar’s oldest and closest friend—who would have accompanied Rhaegar on such excursions, had they happened in the books, rather than Ser Barristan.
Sons of the Harpy attack: An invention of the show, the sons of the harpy never stage such a coordinated assault as they are shown to do here. More notably, Barristan Selmy seems very likely to have been killed in this scene, whereas in the novels he remains alive and well through A Dance with Dragons, as does Grey Worm.