Game of Thrones: The High Sparrow – The game is set, the pieces are moving…
…JUST not always where you want them to.
With the abrupt and characteristically grizzly departure of Charles Dance’s Tywin Lannister last series, Game of Thrones has sadly – but impressively – resigned one of its chief and most impressive players. A move with uncomfortable inevitability for fans who’ve followed the books, but more than a generous helping of sturm und drang to shock even them, especially given the nature of the character and Dance’s striking action.
In what was personally my favourite adaptation of the series’ characters thus far, Dance moved from scene to scene, from series to series as close to a perfectly recognised Tywin as could be realised: with a cold, considered air of the untouchably grandiose. In a series almost entirely concerning would-be kings and queens, lords and ladies, Tywin Lannister was one of the few characters possessed of a real and fully-realised regality. A master statesman, strategist and manipulator, Tywin was one of the few players who not only knew how the game was played, he seemed to know how to win it.
This is not to say the series has bee depleted of Machiavellian marvels. Michael McElhatton continues to impress with his dourly impassive Roose Bolton, who thankfully seems poised to command more screen presence as of this episode. Even more strikingly, Ciaran Hinds made a brilliant – though, it would seem, sadly short-lived – return as Mance Rayder, a character with all the stern pragmatism and wilful authority of Tywin but decidedly more rough and rakish.
If this was indeed Hinds’ final bow-out, as we must assume it is, then it was a suitably vicious yet rousing end for the dispossessed ‘king of the free folk’, and one which combated the strongest facets of his character: his pragmatism and his wilfulness. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the first few episodes have lacked that sense of devious poise and direction which Tywin, more than any other character, warranted and secured. But, as always, out with the old and in with the new.
The viewers should welcome, then, the appearance of Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Glengarry Glen Ross) as the Christ-like High Sparrow. Just as in his most recently realised project as Thomas Wolsey on the truly excellent BBC series Wolf Hall, Pryce brings a much needed stillness and refinement to a series saturated with emotionally-conflicted and/or brutalised/brutal characters; we can only hope he remains as central to the series as this episode suggested. His interview with Lena Headey’s Cersei was personally one of the highlights of the episode, a strange and wonderfully-unexpected collusion between a viper trying very sincerely to hide its teeth and a saintly, unassuming yet somehow eerie man of god (sorry[cough], The Seven).
After a rather rushed wedding (understandably, given what pausing for ceremony normally seems to result in in Westeros), Tommen and Margery are happily, or at least, conveniently, married. One thing I really liked in this episode was how Tommen- hitherto a pretty unknown quantity, passing unnoticed between shots- has morphed (literally) abruptly into character, we see why as a king he is a vast improvement on Joffrey, but, at the same time, why he is hardly much of a king at all.
Much of the central drama of the episode revolves around Margery – the sultry and ever-delightful Dormer – overjoyed in her apparent conquest of a pliable king, locked in a connivingly savage power struggle with Cersei over Tommen’s heart and mind. With Headey, palpably displaying Cersei’s air of spleen at having her family variously wrested from her, she sets out wrest back her position of power by any means necessary. Yes, even religion.
Meanwhile, events in the north jump to a head in a manner that is… surprising, to say the least. So many of the series’ story arcs have begun, or are so well into, deviating from those of the novels that expecting much coherency between them is pretty redundant at this point. Nevertheless, Sansa’s travails in this episode left me scratching my head more than once.
Without wishing to spoil what draws Sansa and the unctuous Littlefinger north for any who haven’t yet seen the episode, I’ll go as far to say that whilst it’s in keeping with the spirit of the novels, it’s a direction so far removed from what was apparent of the character’s motives that this reviewer is left more than a little nonplussed. Hell, even the actors look pretty dazed at times…
It’s not so much whether the cart is now drawing the horse, but rather whether the cart has broken free and spouted wooden-y wings. This new arc however, does indicate, or at least imply, that the series will be making thorough use of some of the characters who were perhaps too often neglected in the novels; and moreover, of some of its strongest actors, even if one does irritate me more than a little.
Brienne and Pod continue their plodding pursuit and both put in a very strong, suitably anxious scene, with both benefiting from a little camp-side backstory- Damn, I knew Westerossi, pseudo-medieval laws were tough but I’ve never heard of a knight getting hung for stealing a ham before. Was it a special hamm perhaps?
After Jon Snow’s rather hurried election to the seat of Lord Commander person, he must now take on a role of command in name as well as action. Kit Harrington conveys well the sense of a commander elated yet uneasy with his newfound power when speaking with the forthright King Stannis. While Liam Cunningham continues to convince with his stalwart Ser Davos, there are only so many times we need reminding that: “Stannis is the right true king o’ Westeros.” By the end of the episode, Harrington impresses that he is no longer the boy Jon Snow, but a leader of the same calibre as his father, in a scene notably reminiscent of Sean Bean’s introduction in series one.
Across the seas, Arya is having to come to terms with the more painful aspects of abandoning her previous life, in what is a simple but evocative scene- though I really wish the faceless man could have any other face, or voice, than Jaqen H’ghar, again.. why not the other face? He looked interesting.
This was an episode which brought to light what has at many times been notably absent from the HBO series: the emphasis on religion and theocracy in medieval society as a unifying, but often destructive force. A difficult issue to handle well, but one which the series would have been severely lacking in had the directors chosen to ignore it.
I would point out that monarchy would never have become a system of government had it not been given religious justification. I am intrigued to see how this arc develops, especially with an actor of the quality of Pryce in what we can assume is a central role. And speaking of what the series had been missing, there’s the welcome return of a rather more familiar face, in the most unexpected of places…