In the House of Black and White, Arya is hard at work as a servant girl, sweeping the stone floors of the dark, dank interior as Jaqen H’ghar tends to followers of the Many-Faced God. Upset at her lot as a mere floorsweeper, Jaqen stresses the meaning of their clandestine phrase, “Valar dohaeris, All men must serve.” He believes that Arya still aims to serve herself instead of the Many-Faced God, or in fact their true god, that of Death. As if to drive this point home, Arya watches as a recently deceased man is carted off to the depths of the House of Black and White.
Arya is soon challenged by another servant of the Many-Faced God, but before their fight can turn bloody, Jaqen interferes. He spots Needle and Arya’s armor, and confronts her, saying that it’s curious how A Girl Who Would Be Noone came to be surrounded by Arya Stark’s possessions. As Arya casts her treasured items into the sea, it’s her sword Needle that’s the most difficult to let go. The deaths of her family members may be beyond her control, but Arya decides to hold onto this one last bit of her old life, even if she has to simply hide it until a time when she can be reunited with Needle once more.
Back at the House, Jaqen leads Arya into the crypts where a dead man lies on a cold slab. The other servant girl begins to disrobe the man and Arya joins in. They wash his lifeless body, but Arya’s question about what happens next goes unanswered.
Cersei is carried in a gilded litter, just behind a similar one carrying her son Tommen and his bride to be, Margaery. Unlike Cersei, the townsfolk love the soon-to-be Queen and shower her with affection; unlike the previous weddings on Game of Thrones, this one is short, sweet, and free of carnage. It’s over almost as fast as Tommen’s wedding night with his new bride. His sweet words to her – “Did I hurt you?” – were in stark contrast to the late King Joffrey’s behavior, surely a fact not lost on the audience. But can such an innocent and well-meaning young king survive the cruelties of King’s Landing? He’s already wrapped around Margaery’s little finger, but his mother surely still has her claws in him as well. The real battle will be between these two femme fatales and it seems that Margaery has the upper hand thanks to her performance in the bedroom.
The next morning, Cersei attempts to undo the damage caused by Tommen’s new bride, or at least to undermine Margaery’s influence over him. Cersei soon learns that her daughter-in-law has been whispering thoughts of sending her back to Casterly Rock. Cersei drops in on Margaery while she’s entertaining her ladies-in-waiting with stories of the king’s endurance. Playing against type, Cersei acts as the doting mother to this usurper of her house, offering her anything she needs, even in the face of Margaery pointing out Cersei’s waning power in King’s Landing. The scowl on her face as she leaves Margaery and her laughing ladies suggests anything but good-natured familial relations.
Meanwhile, the High Septon of King’s Landing is up to some Eyes Wide Shut shenanigans as he plays a “Game of Whores” in which he chooses which of the seven gods (ie prostitutes) to lay with. Before he gets the chance, Lancel Lannister and his fellow Sparrows storm in, forcing the holy man to walk the streets naked as repayment for his sins. Surviving that ordeal, the Septon comes before Cersei, Lord Tyrell, Maester Pycelle, and Qyburn to protest his treatment. He wants the lot arrested, and the High Sparrow executed. Cersei goes to meet him, against Ser Meryn Trant’s warnings.
Amidst the filth and squalor of the unwashed masses, Cersei meets the High Sparrow, an unassuming old man dressed in rags and doling out gruel to his followers. The pious folk are the opposite of Cersei and her ilk, though the Queen Mother appears to share a strong faith with this High Sparrow, telling him that she’s locked the High Septon in the Red Keep’s dungeon.
Back in Qyburn’s chamber, Cersei passes him a letter to send to Littlefinger. While the mad scientist vivisects rats for fun (and a body bucks back to life under its shroud…) Cersei inquires about his progress, which is coming along nicely…
The Boltons roll through the North, their terrifying banners waving proudly. Reek watches as the men hoist the flayed body of a woman for all to see, while crows peck at another body lying in the cart. In the dank hall, Roose Bolton and his son Ramsey discuss the Northern lords and their allegiances to the Starks. Ramsey tried to convince them otherwise by flaying a disloyal lord, along with his wife and brother, while his son watched. That seems to have worked. Reek, who serves his master, is privy to their entire conversation, but will that matter to the man who was once known as Theon Greyjoy?
Roose is concerned that his allies in the Lannister House have gone up in smoke with the death of Tywin Lannister, a complication to the Bolton’s plan to hold the North. Their power has come from alliances and marriage, not torture and murder. That being true, Roose has lined a bride up for his twisted son, none other than Lady Sansa Stark.
Sansa and Baelish arrive outside of the ruined towers amidst the swamplands of the Neck, where Littlefinger breaks the news to her that she is to marry Ramsey, the son of the man who murdered nearly half of her family. Baelish says she can turn and run if she wishes to, but says it’s high time for her to start playing the game rather than just being a victim of it. This is her opportunity for vengeance. Sansa gives in to Littlefinger’s slick words, even as Podrick and Brienne watch from a high cliff nearby.
In the courtyard of Moat Cailin, Sansa makes the acquaintances of Roose and Ramsey Bolton as some dour young women look on. An old maid welcomes Sansa home as Lady Stark, saying, “The North remembers.” Ramsey and Peter discuss their feelings for Sansa, and Baelish makes his affection for her known. Littlefinger also certifies her virginity for Lord Roose, though the elder Bolton only wants Sansa’s name, not her virtue. The two have a terse exchange that reveals snippets of strategy and sharp words; this might be the first time that someone has truly managed to challenge Littlefinger’s intellect. As if to solidify that fact, Roose gives Baelish Cersei’s letter, the seal of which has already been broken.
Brienne and Pod have to go the long way around the moat, which offers them plenty of time to get to know each other. We get a bit of Podrick’s background as a squire, which started with a stolen ham and continued with a pardon from Tywin Lannister to serve his son Tyrion. The two reach a bit of an understanding and Brienne offers to train him in the ways of a knight, mostly fighting and riding. She also shares a story about how she once enjoyed herself at her father’s ball, relishing in the attention heaped on her by eligible young men … until she realized they were making fun of her. Brienne’s confidence was bolstered by Renly Baratheon then, and she’s still haunted by her failure to protect him. Her quest for vengeance – one of many that remains unfulfilled – ends with the death of Stannis Baratheon.
Lord Commander Jon Snow (has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?) is visited by Stannis and Davos, along with Jon’s steward, Olly. Stannis wants to know if Jon has accepted his offer to become Jon Stark and rule the North, but the Lord Commander refuses. He then inquires how long Stannis and his men will remain at the castle, to which the Man Who Would Be King bristles, but understands the strain on their resources. Stannis, however, plans to leave the Wildling prisoners to the Night’s Watch. He gives a parting word of advice, to give Alliser Thorne command of Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. Davos does his best to smooth over the rough edges of Stannis with Jon, a position the Onion Knight often finds himself in. He uses the Oath of the Night’s Watch to stir Jon into protecting the “realms of men” rather than just sitting on the Wall.
At the meeting of the Night’s Watch, Maester Aemon is absent due to his poor health. Jon starts the meeting off with a bit of a joke and appoints a soldier to be in charge of digging a new latrine pit. His gaze lingers on his adversary Alliser Thorne for a while, and a lesser leader would drag his enemy through the mud (or worse). Instead, Jon names his First Ranger, while ordering Janos Slynt to see to the remote Greyguard. Slynt refuses the order and challenges Snow’s command … a poor decision. Alliser Thorne steps aside to let the other brothers take Slynt to his death. Olly hands the sword Longclaw to Jon, who gives Slynt a chance to voice his last words. He apologizes and asks for mercy, admitting his lifelong, default position of fear. Snow hesitates, but beheads the treacherous soldier as Stannis looks on with a nod of approval.
Varys and Tyrion are traveling in their carriage along the long road to Volantis. Tyrion has had enough of their seclusion and wants to stretch his legs, despite Varys’ warnings. Our first look at Old Volantis is an interesting one that explores the tattoos of the city’s slaves for sale in the crowded, exotic market. Why, there’s even a ceremony dedicated to the Lord of Light, led by a Red Priestess (Rila Fukushima) who believes that Daenerys, the Dragon Queen, is the world’s savior. She stares right through Tyrion’s disguise, a knowing enough look to scare the dwarf off to a brothel. And who should they find there but a prostitute dressed as Daenerys, oh, and a sad-looking Jorah Mormont drowning his sorrows in ale. Tyrion soon finds himself unable to bed one of the brothel’s girls, and drinks himself silly instead. Whilst relieving himself out a window, Jorah ties him up with plans to deliver him to Cersei (and thus restore his lordship, if you remember her offer).
“High Sparrow” continues the theme of transformation we saw during last week’s hour, but pushes our protagonists further by making them go against their type. Arya sheds (almost) all of her former life’s notable possessions in order to become Jaqen’s apprentice; Cersei puts on her most demure face to keep Margaery guessing at her motives, and to match faith with the High Sparrow; Sansa puts her fear and propensity for being a victim aside in the hope of achieving vengeance against the Boltons; Jon upholds the law of the Night’s Watch despite his soft heart; and perhaps most surprisingly of all, Tyrion refuses to bed a whore. This episode is another great example of how everything we know about these characters we’ve lived with for the previous four seasons is changing. The future is quickly becoming ever more uncertain, and with that change, even more exciting.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Arya: “I didn’t come here to sweep floors.”
Jaqen: “There is only one God. A girl knows his name, and all men know his gift.”
Margaery: “I think we’re going to be happy, you and I.”
Cersei: “I’m glad to hear you’re happy.” Margaery: “Ecstatic. I really am. Exhausted, to be honest, but what could I expect, he is half-lion, half-stag.”
Brienne: “I’m sorry I’m always snapping at you.” Podrick: “If you weren’t snapping, I wouldn’t learn anything.”
Brienne: “Stannis is a man, not a shadow. A man can be killed.”
Lord Commander Jon Snow: “Winter is coming.”
Davos: “As long as the Boltons hold the North, the North will suffer. Just one man’s opinion.”
Jon: “Brothers! As you all know full well, it’s long past time to dig a new latrine pit.”
High Septon: “Even prostitutes may earn the mercy of the Mother.”
High Sparrow: “Hypocrisy is a boil. Lancing a boil is never pleasant, although they could have been more careful with the blade.”
Tyrion: “I have to get out of this wheelhouse.”
Varys: “Where are you going?” Tyrion: “I need to speak to someone with hair.”