This recap contains SPOILERS! Please don't read unless you're caught up to this episode of Season 5! Also, please refrain from book/leaked episode spoilers in the comments!
I've struggled to feel excited for where Game of Thrones is headed this season, so it's a shock that the most dreary episode in recent memory has me itching to see what happens next.
"High Sparrow" was an episode that focused on duty across the spectrum of its many characters. We didn't see Jaime, Bronne, or anyone from Meereen in this episode, but that was likely for the best. Instead, the episode was mainly fixated on the few remaining Stark children struggling to fulfill their obligations that stand in the way of who they really are.
Fitting, then, that these hardships of the Starks are offset by the episode's early scenes with King Tommen having an easy time fulfilling his duties, which in this case includes bedding "the most beautiful woman in the world." While he's having the time of his life being a Baratheon (despite not really being one), the "true" Starks are making compromises left and right to secure their place in this world.
Meanwhile, we see the consequences of what being true to your name will get you with Cersei, who is watching the two things she loves most slip away from her completely: her children and her power. Cersei has done whatever it takes to secure her place in Westeros, including marrying Robert Baratheon, a brute who loved someone else. Years later, she's watching it all prove itself to be meaningless.
Scenes in King's Landing have been mostly dry for my tastes this season, if only because they've focused so heavily on setting up scenes that the books also took forever to pay off. But now, I'm finally feeling the groove this show has been aiming for. Tommen is now old enough (he's a man, now!) to have some agency in this story, and it's refreshing to see more of Margaery's perspective in a story that leaves her as mysterious as her grandmother, Lady Olenna (I can't wait for her return).
And so we have the name of the episode, "High Sparrow," which we learn to be a belittling title (King Turtle, says Jonathan Pryce as the aforementioned Sparrow). We see the High Septon (the capitol's chief religious overseer) getting humiliated for hypocrisy (a sin we see thrice with the Stark children later). He must walk naked and beaten through the streets by the religious zealots known as the Sparrows, led by Lancel Lannister.
If you're wondering who's next in terms of facing the Sparrows' wrath, you're ahead of the game. Based on what we've seen so far this season, my money is on Loras Tyrell facing off against this new movement coming in King's Landing. It will play nicely in Cersei's favor if she can take down at least one Tyrell for now, explaining why she was so cozy with the High Sparrow in their first meeting.
Speaking of the High Sparrow, I'm feeling major Oberyn Martell vibes from him. Not from them having similar personalities (because they don't), but from them being likable characters I want to see more of. His endless humility is a nice contrast to the many faces of King's Landing, yet he still strikes me as someone who should not be trusted.
But back to the Stark children, I want to point out the incredible symmetry the show runners created for these three characters. Though two of them depart somewhat from the books (one is far more of a departure, to be fair, but it's also welcome), "High Sparrow" keeps the importance of these scenes well in check.
Jon Snow must fulfill his duty as Lord Commander by doing something he failed to do with Ygritte way back in Season 2. He must execute Janos Slynt for belligerently refusing an order in the most disrespectful way possible, and I almost thought Jon wouldn't do it, even as a book reader.
But this isn't Season 2. Jon Snow has taken many lives since that day, and he's no longer struggling to make the hard decisions that weigh the lives of others. Though he still hesitates, Jon is unwavering in his decision to stick with the Night's Watch, even at the cost of giving up his childhood dream of being a true Stark.
Being a Stark isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially when you're forced to show civility to the man who betrayed your family, murdered your brother, and is now expecting you to marry his son. Imagine if Sansa knew what a psychotic madman Ramsay Bolton is. It didn't surprise me that the show chose to downplay how much the world knows about Ramsay's wickedness by having Littlefinger say outright that the former bastard is an unknown. This is also a slight departure from the books, but it's necessary in order to make the streamlined show easier to believe.
Of the Stark children, Sansa has the most difficult duty to carry out. For the sake of returning Winterfell (and the Stark name) to it's former glory, she's willing to make nice with her enemies, in a way that somewhat finalizes her transformation that began in "Mockingbird" last season. But we're quickly reminded that not everyone in the North is willing to let the Boltons get away with what's transpired, as the unnamed servant points out when uttering the chill-inducing line, The North remembers.
Someone has to forget, of course, and that is Arya Stark. We saw much more of the House of Black and White in this episode, but it's still a mystery in many ways. Arya is serving the house in simple ways for now, but it's a great way for her to observe how things are done in this strange temple to the Many-Faced God (or as Jaqen references, "Death.") We see a man receive the "great mercy" of death by drinking from some water and passing out on the ground. Later, Arya must wash his body alongside a fellow disciple (it's true that you can't force women to hang out together), but the episode teases the meaning of all this for a future event.
More importantly (for now) is Arya's directive to fully embrace the identity of "no one" by giving up everything still tied to her past in Westeros. It's easy for her to give up her clothes and the coins she stole from the Hound. She hesitates a bit with Jaqen's coin but eventually tosses it. The only thing she can't bear to leave behind, however, is Needle, the sword Jon gave to her in their last moments together. With tears in her eyes, she chooses to hold on to at least one thing by burying the sword in case she changes her mind. You can't say that's not practical.
If Arya is to truly become a Faceless Man, however, that bit about the sword will have to be addressed eventually, but you can safely predict that the show will find ways to impart this lesson to Arya more dramatically, making her potential transformation that much more entertaining to watch.
Finally, the episode aptly ends with a drawn out Tyrion segment that this season has desperately needed, pushing this episode from good to great. In many ways, Tyrion's name has always been like the "High Sparrow." Belittling, which even Podrick points out earlier when Brienne refers to him as "The Imp."
And we see clearly that Tyrion is far from letting go of his true self. He banters and quips in the brothel like his old self, and he goes to cringing lengths to almost out himself in front of people he clearly shouldn't trust, even quoting his family motto (bad move for a fugitive dwarf with a defining feature).
Incidentally, Tyrion struggles to perform a personal duty, in that he finds himself incapable of bedding yet another whore, much to his shock and dismay. You'd think this would lead a positive step forward for the dwarf, but it only leads to being captured by Jorah Mormont, whom we haven't seen since his exile from Meereen last season. He says he's taking Tyrion "to the Queen," but viewers have to wonder which "Queen" Jorah means. It's been built up that Cersei is seeking Tyrion, but she is only the Queen mother, and I very much doubt Jorah would think of her as the true Queen.
But if Jorah is taking Tyrion to "The Dragon Queen," then you have to wonder why he'd think a disgraced Lannister would be of any use to Daenerys Targaryen, especially as a captive. True, Jaime Lannister killed her father, but Dany is more focused on taming Slaver's Bay at the moment. It will be interesting to see what Jorah has planned in the coming episodes, as he too struggles to fulfill a duty that has been lost to him, despite his best efforts.
- The irony of Janos Slynt (who killed Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon's bastards) being killed by Ned Stark's bastard is one of my favorite moments of the entire series.
- I greatly enjoyed Brienne and Pod's straight-outta-the-books campfire talk, and her decision to avenge Renly by killing Stannis and train Pod as a knight is a surprising plot element that improves her role this season. Also, of course she knew Renly liked men. She's not the brightest person, but she's not an idiot.
- Qyburn, you mad genius. I'm looking forward to seeing what's hiding under that sheet.
- It's weird that I don't feel bad for Tommen being taken advantage of by an older woman in the same way I felt for Sansa marrying the much older Tyrion. Maybe it's because it's clearly consensual, but it's a strange phenomenon in gender dynamics all the same.
- Ramsay's current-ish lover Myranda does NOT look too happy about this marriage to Sansa.
- There's been a lot of confusion as to where Sansa, Littlefinger, and the Boltons really are right now. The episode makes you think it's Moat Cailin, but it looks like Winterfell, and the Winterfell theme is even playing. Also, the Boltons would still be in Winterfell based on last season's events, so I think we can safely assume Sansa really is home now, not just "home" when it comes to the North.
- Theon converging with Sansa is something I desperately want to see. I loved his moments in the most recent book, surprisingly, and with Stannis marching toward Winterfell, I'm starting to see how this season could get chaotic very quickly.
- The Syrio reference was really interesting to hear since...well, how would Jaqen know that he taught Arya the "what do we say to death" thing? I know many people seem to think Syrio and Jaqen are one in the same or have shared a face (and thus, memories), but I'm still skeptical.
- Is Alliser Thorne really on Jon's side now? First Ranger is a huge honor, but I doubt that's all it takes to win his loyalty after all this time.
- "I'll never hurt her," promises Ramsay to Littlefinger. Yeah effing right.
- Maester Aemon was out sick this week. Makes you wonder how he would have felt about Jon's brash decision to kill Janos (he probably would have approved).
- The shoutout to Thoros of Myr (the Red Priest now with the Brotherhood Without Banners) makes me carefully hope he'll make a return soon. Maybe Gendry too?