Back before their days of being on the run together, Varys once told Tyrion a riddle. A king, a priest, and a rich man all stand in a room with a common swordsman. Each of the three men bids the swordsmen to kill the other two, so who lives and who dies? While the scheming likes of Littlefinger would have you believe that money rules everything, eventually Tyrion does get the answer, or more importantly the lack of. It all depends on the swordsman himself. While some men can be purchased like Janos Slint, others would die before dishonouring their king like Brienne, or hold the words of Gods and faith above all else like Lady Melisandre. The truth is that power only ever lies where men (or women) believe it does. This is a lesson several other faces learn this week as they learn the power of playing their roles, or utilising others, in the Game of Thrones.
High Sparrow – As Margaery finally weds (and beds) the young King Tommen, Cersei finds herself in a losing tug-of-war for her son with her power position of power ever diminishing, but a new religious arrival in King's Landing may prove the ally she needs. The Bolton's struggle to enforce their dominion over the North, but a surprising marriage may change everything, and Jon Snow makes his first moves as the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.
So if we’re talking about fighting for power and control, it seems only right to start in King's Landing where the mother of all mother in law spats is brewing. It’s interesting to see how quickly the Tommen/Magaery wedding is brushed over. While some may feel denied this is a very smart move to avoid heavy repetition on last season. Instead we head straight to the denied aftermath of the Purple Wedding as Margaery works her claws into her new husband by wielding Cersei‘s favourite womanly weapon against her. Although she may lack her inherit cruelty, it’s great to see Margaery beating Cersei at her own power-hording game. The morning after meeting of the ladies is brilliant to behold as the new Queen subtly reminds the old of her increasingly insignificant place. Cersei stripped naked of usual spite and defiance in full awareness of the weaker hand she now holds, the lioness quivering and crippled by the rose’s thorns. This provides a great setup for Cersei’s surprising would-be alliance with the new High Sparrow, returning to the earlier riddle. If she cannot make Margaery answer to money or monarchy then she’ll wield the power of religion agaimst her. Their first meeting is a great humble affair and straight out of the blocks. Jonathan Pryce (Tomorrow Never Dies, Wolf Hall) shows he will be an absolute on-screen delight this season. His performance is wonderfully understated with subtleties of cunning rustling seductively underneath his tunic. Not to mention that the deposition of the existing High Septum, complete with prostitute cosplay roulette and ensuing walk of shame makes for the comedy highlight of the episode. The follow-up Small Council scene also gifts Qyburn the best line of the week as queries the High Septum’s story, “So you were ministering to the needs of these devout prostitutes”. Well, at least in this fictional world the corrupt priests make their sins with adults.
The most surprising power play comes in colder climates as Sansa lives up to her claim as “Key to the North” after all. It raises a few audience questions but the episode navigates them well. The early exchange with Littlefinger manages to answer our own inhibitions effectively without overdoing it by giving Sansa a believable motive to side with those who murdered her mother, brother, and God knows who else she loved: Revenge. Sophie Turner has her best episode since her wedding night as she travels through emotions: from the horror of discovery to her resolve in action and pleasant smiling facade in the face the Boltons. Yet it’s the little moment in her new sleeping chamber that really gives dragon’s wings to the imagination. The Bolton’s make clear both inside and outside Winterfell that rule with terror yet Sansa inspires the most lowly of servants to speak against them when in confidence; “Welcome home Lady Stark, the North remembers”. Could we see the people of the North rallying to her against Boltons? Or does Sansa now mirror Jon Snow amongst the Wildling ranks? She’s in place as the one woman on the inside worth a thousand on the outside, ready to deliver the unseen blow at the crucial moment? Theon now also becomes a wild card in the mix. Siding with Sansa when it matters could become his redemption or is he too far gone? While of course, some may be unhappy with how this breaks from the books, it does add a fantastic new depth and dynamic on the fate of Winterfell and the outcome of the upcoming battle.
Brienne and Pod look like they want to be involved on the Winterfell action too as she declares her intentions to kill the non-shadowy ghost Stannis herself. In an almost symbolic torch handover from her killing of Sandor Clegane, Pod and Brienne’s scenes are filling the hole left by the great Hound and & Ayra pairing. Since they set out last season, they’ve made for a good odd couple duo, but like the dog and wolf girl , they produce some very touching moments when they actually open up to each other. Here, they prove this perfectly with their mutual back stories. Brienne’s is the most enjoyable as she reveals that despite her best intentions there is a lady in her after all, as well as nicely explaining her devotion to Renly as from first meeting she fell in love with his kindness. Director Mark Mylod (Entourage, Once Upon A Time) manages to gently tease their co-dependency and you have to love Pod’s genuine sentiments of being proud to be her squire.
Kit Harrington continues to be on good form as he begins his tenure as Lord Commander. The scenes with Stannis feel too much like repetition from the last two episodes but do serve to keep the matter still present in Jon’s mind. His first council session has a great feel of mirroring Rob Stark’s early days in Northern leadership: a young man similarly channelling his father Eddard for strength. The way he turns the opposing force of Ser Allister on his side is a parallel to Rob winning over Greatjon Umber to be his biggest supporter. Then of course, actions over the defiance of Janos Slynt echo straight back to Rob executing Rikkard Karstark. Not just for the obvious “old way” justice in action but the doubt over his ultimate decision. Before his final moments, few would have been sad to see the great betrayer and personal puddle maker being put on the block. Yet as he begs for mercy and admits his longstanding fear should Jon have granted it? Is he channelling more a Stannis influence than he realises? And will that a similarly haunting mistake as Karstark was for Rob? Either way, few would doubt Jon’s authority in command, having shown all the price of ignoring it, but now will they trust his leadership after he’s so quick to take a man’s life? The Old Bear once told him that if wanted to command to needed to learn how to follow. He may do well to remember how his own defiance’s were treated with more kindly in the past.
Varys and Tyrion’s sightseeing trip into Volantis gives another rather gorgeous looking new location to gawp at. While the CG establishing shots are eye-pleasing, it’s the impressions of the city’s culture that fascinate the most. From seeing another Red Priestess in action to how much of a presence Danny’s name and reputation hold despite her empire not yet reaching this slavering city. She’s both named as their saviour by the priestess in the same way Melisandre would proclaim the title on Stannis, and such a commonly known persona of her cosplaying prostitute counterpart (the oddest of recurring themes) is the toast of the local brothel. Finally, Ayra’s scenes inside the House of Black and White are certainly intriguing, but her emotional moment with Needle aside her scenes don’t engage as much as the episode’s other offerings.
This Sparrow has no dark wings and few dark words to speak about it. It gets some great plotlines in motion with plenty of surprises gifting humour and drama in equal measure. Director Mark Mylod gets a deserved encore next week, and after this episode, people will certainly believe that power lies him.