‘Game of Thrones’ Season 5, Episode 4 Recap: ‘Sons of the Harpy’HBO
An army of undead ice zombies is marching from the North. A rogue dragon is terrorizing the east. And in the south, poisonous snakes are considered breakfast. There’s never been any question the world of Game of Thrones is as heightened as it is horrific, and there has not been any shortage of reminders. Over the past four years, we’ve seen weddings end in slaughter, pets worn as hats, and a human head pop like a blood-filled balloon. In our world, smoke suggests fire. In Westeros, smoke suggests unexpected fratricide, not to mention worrisome intimate hygiene.
So here’s to “Sons of the Harpy,” a truly outstanding episode of Game of Thrones that excelled mainly by celebrating the ordinary. For all the stirring action (which included a horse-skewering, an alley ambush, and a long-distance face-stabbing) and roiling drama (Tyrion in a boat! Sansa in a crypt! Lancel at the tattoo parlor!), the best parts of the hour traded in the rarest currency in the land. No, not Valyrian steel — normalcy. Think of Jaime and Bronn’s confessional sleepover on the coast of Dorne. Sure, things escalated quickly once the cavalry arrived — and let’s not sleep on Jaime’s Indiana Jones–worthy save! — but the most important part of their time together was the quietest.1 There was Bronn giving the Kingslayer the sort of relationship tough talk no one else would. “How would you want to go?” the sellsword asks. Jaime, mistaking heartburn for wildfire, responds dreamily: “In the arms of the woman I love.” And Bronn’s eyes are raised before anyone even has time to remember that the woman in question happens to be the Kingslayer’s sister. Contrast that with Bronn’s own manner of defining success: “I’ve had an exciting life,” he says with a shrug. “I want my death to be boring.”
Oh, to be boring! It’s not a luxury afforded to many Game of Thrones characters, and, if we’re being honest, we’d never want it to be. Remember Hot Pie, the baker’s boy who spent one scary semester abroad with Arya before choosing the slow rise of yeast over the rocketing terror of adventure? I do. In fact, I think about him a lot, which is weird when you consider that he’s not remotely important. (At least Gendry, Arya’s other redshirt pal from Seasons 2 and 3, was worth a few leeches down in Dragonstone!) But Hot Pie matters more in his absence than he ever did onscreen. Because unlike his high-profile contemporaries, Hot Pie was able to walk away. His life is now as boring as Bronn’s ideal death, and in Westeros that’s quite a gift. As a viewer, I’d never want to watch a show about Hot Pie. But as a human, it’s hard not to envy his choice.
None of Thrones’s protagonists could ever decide to take themselves off the board so easily — as Sansa decided last week, even marrying a monster beats being a “bystander to tragedy” — but the fact that the occasional lapse into convention is possible makes their predicaments all the more devastating. What do I mean by “convention”? Well, all the sorts of relatable things high fantasy often has little time for. (Did you ever see a hobbit paying his taxes?) So there was Jon Snow, suddenly buried in paperwork instead of glory. Just a week removed from removing Janos’s head, Jon is discovering that for a Lord Commander, the pen is often mightier than the sword.2 As if fundraising in a dark room weren’t normcore enough, Melisandre approaches Jon not with visions of fire or promises of eternal glory but with the prospect of ordinary, old-fashioned sex. How traditional! How quaint!
But that’s not even the half of it. Rather than act on his well-established love of redheads, Jon somehow manages to stay away from Melisandre’s smoke machine. “I swore a vow,” he stammers. “I loved another.” To her credit, the Red Woman accepts this unexpected bit of blue-balling, saying, “The dead don’t need lovers. Only the living.” “I know,” answers Jon. “But I still love her.” Is the correct response “Awwww” or “Uh-oh”? This is the second time a vow has kept Jon from helping Stannis exact the revenge everyone wants him to exact. Correct me if I’m wrong, but on Game of Thrones, doesn’t fortune tend to favor the flexible? You broke a vow in a cave once, Jon. Isn’t it OK — not to mention a lot more sanitary — to do it again in your office?
But the crazier thing to me is that Jon’s pining for Ygritte is almost painfully storybook — and we all remember the last time Thrones gave us a storybook love affair, right? Prince Charming was shivved right in the heart. Best not to dwell too much on that, I think, as it doesn’t look like Jon’s in any real danger, at least not yet. (As with Jaime, the costume department isn’t going to invest in such a snug-fitting leather tunic only to have it ruined with sword slashes and arrow holes.) Maybe instead let’s wonder why Melisandre is so interested in Jon’s longclaw in the first place. Isn’t she usually only attracted to people with royal blood?3
Mostly, though, I appreciated the way showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (as well as Dave Hill, who was the credited writer on the episode) allowed Jon to have a scene like that in the first place, one in which the emotional toll of the past was given precedent over the existential threats still to come. (Tyrion had a scene like that last week, come to think of it, when he confessed to his surprise that he wasn’t quite ready to take another lover.) I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s the little moments that give us the sense of perspective necessary to appreciate the larger ones. So let’s not overlook seemingly throwaway stories of busking princes or fail to appreciate crazy Jorah’s potentially fatal optimism.4
Even Cersei was granted a brief respite from the pressures of shortsightedly stoking a fundamentalist uprising — first, by batting around dumb old Mace Tyrell like a rubber ball. (In a show rightly celebrated for its casting, can we raise our goblets to Roger Ashton-Griffiths? I’m not sure I’ve ever before seen someone bumble so foolishly or so well.) And then by taking the time to stand by the window and really appreciate her morning wine. It’s moments like these that remind me why I can’t stay mad at Cersei, even as she embarks on a global campaign of dwarf butchery. She’s not afraid to take some “me time” when she needs it, you know?
And if I’m listing the episode’s surprisingly relatable moments, I can’t ignore what may have been the single kindest interaction in the entire 44-hour history of the series. Shireen’s continued presence at Castle Black was likely as confusing to viewers as it was to her. After all, it seemed apparent that Stannis’s only child was a source of shame to the presumptive king. What use is a bookish girl to a warrior and leader of men — a girl marked by a battle with a debilitating disease, at that? Obviously, Shireen felt the same way. And when she asked her father about it, what followed was truly remarkable.
There are no living examples of good fathers on Game of Thrones — Ned Stark was the closest the show came, and look how he ended up. (I guess you could argue that Jaime is looking after his daughter by going to Dorne, but he insists he’s acting strictly in an avuncular capacity.) So when Stannis launched into a monologue, I flinched, expecting the worst. What I got instead was the best. He spoke of buying a doll from a lowlife trader and the smile it brought out of his baby daughter. The story takes a dark turn — the doll likely infected Shireen with greyscale — and Stannis’s subsequent Herculean efforts to find a cure could be interpreted, by some, as guilt or penance. But the truth of it is, all fathers would behave that way, moving heaven and Middle-earth to save their ill child. All fathers not named Lannister or Bolton, anyway.
It’s clear that Stannis isn’t much of a hugger. And, to be honest, until last night, he wasn’t much of a character, either. (I’ve never quite understood why some people — our own Maester included — have such a soft spot for him.) But his awkward admission of love was powerful and nearly had me ready to take up his royal banner. Think about the phrasing of his final words: “You are Princess Shireen of House Baratheon,” he says. “And you are my daughter.” The latter title trumped the former; for once, a monarch deemed the personal more important than the public. In a world where children are pawns to be swapped, chips to be cashed, or embarrassments to be swept under the tapestry, parenting — true, proper parenting — is a quietly radical act.
Of course, there was no shortage of noisily radical acts this week, too. In King’s Landing, Cersei has proved herself to be quite the inheritor of her father’s cunning. After all, mobilizing a bloodthirsty army of religious fundamentalists in a fit of pique always works out in the long term. What could possibly go wrong? I mean, other than “everything”? Still, it was breathtaking to observe the speed with which Cersei’s Faith Militant rocketed her back to the catbird seat. (Kudos to director Mark Mylod for his clever work here. The episode’s two major set pieces were amplified by his rhythmic usage of cutaways.) Compromising her son’s authority to spite his wife does seem extreme — as does, you know, locking up royals whose proclivities differ from your own — but, then again, Cersei’s son isn’t exactly the sharpest blade in the armory. (Tommen’s “Aren’t you and mother getting along?” has already been boxed, authenticated, and shipped to the Doormat Hall of Fame. The poor king. He just wants someone to eat cheese with!)
And what to make of the High Sparrow’s role in all of this? There’s a delicacy to Jonathan Pryce’s performance that’s at odds with his actions: He carries himself like a humble servant of the Lord, not an armed avenger. Yet somewhere between the sept and the streets, his message seems to corrode. His soup spoon morphs into a jagged knife. What’s his long-term goal here: preaching or punishment? Is he in over his balding head? Or is he as clever a manipulator as Cersei believes herself to be? The thing to remember, I think, is that as vicious as the Red Wedding was, Tywin was a genius for arranging it the way he did. Without ever standing up from his desk, Tywin kept the bloodshed away from his city and his name out of the ravens’ mouths. Cersei — who, by the way, isn’t exactly traditional in the bedroom either! — has the beginnings of a revolution on her hands, and she’s too day-drunk to realize she’s no longer pulling the strings.
Speaking of revolution, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys’s occupation of Meereen transformed from quagmire to clusterfuck. The Sons of the Harpy — you remember, the pro-slavery insurgency group that bought their disguises wholesale from an Eyes Wide Shut factory — set a trap for the Unsullied that worked to perfection, killing dozens, including (potentially) the valiant Ser Barristan and Grey Worm. The street fighting was as brutal as it was effective. It’s quite clear that the Harpies could never defeat the Unsullied on the battlefield. But it’s also clear that, lost in the warren of Meereen’s back alleys, betrayed at every turn by locals, the Unsullied can never win here. What good are bravery and long spears when short knives are poking at you from every direction?
There may have been no greater tribute to the comforts of tradition this episode than when Barristan unsheathed his broadsword and joined the battle. The old man was valiant, fighting with the poise and style of an Arthurian legend. Too bad he didn’t get the same ending. As Bronn observed, all forms of death are “shit ways to go,” but there was something particularly dispiriting about the sight of a regal knight bleeding out into the dusty gutters of a fractious, unknowable city. Of course, the Westerosi arrogance that put him there ought to be familiar to any citizens watching at home in the Westerosi Hemisphere. As we learned over the last decade, the best and brightest men and ideals don’t export well — especially when the people they’ve been dispatched to save resent the help. It’d be nice to imagine someone, somewhere, writing a song about Ser Barristan and his bravery. But it’s all too easy to imagine another Daenerys losing herself in the melody without ever bothering to notice the harsh lessons of the lyrics. As the wooden warriors of House Cartman once sang, “Freedom Isn’t Free.” But it kind of matters who ends up footing the bill.
The biggest hurdle in genre entertainment is that the astonishing details that set it apart — be they magic, masks, or capes — can eventually overwhelm the entire enterprise. We’ve seen it happen many times before: when the black oil of The X-Files’s conspiracy plot oozed over all the non-serialized fun, or when Lost started paying more attention to the intricacies of time travel than the peculiarities of the human soul.5 The concern for Game of Thrones was that, as the show expanded, the small-scale folly on display would be subsumed by superhuman danger. The CGI White Walkers are plenty scary, but they could also be a convenient cudgel, used to beat all of Thrones’s messy partisanships back into a reassuring binary of good guys versus bad. Sure, it’s cool to see dragons raining fire down from above, but it’s much more compelling to see dopes and dreamers wrestling around in the muck.
What has impressed me most about this exceptional fifth season is the way it has never lost sight of this contradiction or strayed from what appears to be Thrones’s core conceit: that access to the extraordinary doesn’t change the ordinariness of our problems, doesn’t ennoble our faults or mask our failures. Human beings don’t need dragons to set uncontrollable fires. We don’t need armies to start unwinnable wars. They may be separated by an ocean of imagination and intent, but George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, and D.B. Weiss believe the same things as David Chase, Vince Gilligan, and all the other Grand Maesters of prestige TV: Humans make for the most fascinating and flawed heroes. And there’s no question we also make for the best enemies — especially to ourselves.
Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no immediate intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. OK? OK!
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