In the world of Game of Thrones, everyone is on a quest for revenge. With 456 deaths and counting, there are many people trying to keep faith with the dead. For them, the best way to honor the memory of the dead is to get vengeance on those deemed responsible for their death. The history of Westeros is made of up long cycles of retaliation and blood feuds among families, the present conflict not withstanding.
In “High Sparrow,” sisters Arya and Sansa further position themselves in a long game to avenge the death of the Stark family, both of them shedding some of their former selves in order to achieve this goal. Jon Snow turns down Stannis Baratheon’s offer for revenge against the Boltons in order to rule as Lord Commander. In King’s Landing, the newly-made Queen Margaery avenges the cruelty she’s long suffered at Cersei’s hand, turning the tables on her Queen Mother. Brienne reminds us of her ever-present mission to avenge the death of her friend Renly by killing the man she believes responsible: his brother, Stannis. Tyrion, on his way to meet up with Daenerys in Meeren, is involved in a plot against the rule of his own house, seeking vengeance for a lifetime of mistreatment and misery at the hands of his relatives.
We begin inside the House of Black and White. Arya Stark is seen endlessly sweeping the floors. She watches on as various people come in to pray to the Many-Faced God, including one man who later dies after voluntarily drinking from a pool in the center of the room.
Statues of many different idols fill the room, but they all represent the same god. This monotheistic religion is also syncretic: the Faceless Men assert that there’s only one god, and that all of the disparate faiths around the world actually worship the Him; He has simply appeared to them in many forms (much like how Jaqen can appear with many different faces).
Arya grows fed up with her menial task and demands to given a higher purpose. “Valar dohaeris,” Jaqen reminds her. “All men must serve; Faceless Men, most of all… A girl wants to serve herself. To serve well, a girl must become No One.”
The young Stark strives to become one of the Faceless Men, but she has already taken on many different faces over the course of the show. In the beginning, she was simply a little girl who fought with her older sister and tried to best her brothers at archery. Then, after her father was executed, Arya was forced to change her identity several times out of self-preservation. Now, in the House of Black and White, the religion calls for her to give up each of the faces she has already worn in order to become No One. Self-abnegation, instead of self-preservation.
At the docks, Arya symbolically casts of each piece of her former life. First, she drops in the boy’s clothing she has been wearing since Season 1, when she became Arry: the little orphan boy Yoren (a Night’s Watch recruiter) disguised her as to smuggle her out of King’s Landing.
Then, she drops in what Jaqen called “Arya Stark’s stolen silver,” which represented the person she became with the Hound. She stole the coin purse off his body when she abandoned him at the Eyrie at the end of last season. After it goes the coin Jaqen gave her, which became a symbol of her identity as a coldblooded instrument of vengeance against those who did her wrong.
Finally, there is Needle: the sword given to her by her beloved half-brother, Jon. This sword is a memory of a past life with her family, a symbol of all her new-found strength and violence, and the instrument of her vengeance against all those who have done her friends and family harm.
With this sword at her side, Arya is so self-possessed, so confident in herself and her mission. In order to become No One, to serve the Many-Faced God as his instrument, she needs to shed this self; ultimately, she cannot bring herself to do it. She can’t let go of Needle or the desire in her blood to get revenge for her family. Instead of dropping it into the lagoon, she hides it in a stone wall where she might find it again. She is successful in burying that part of her alongside Needle, ready to be retrieved in the future when she’s ready to get justice in her family’s name. Until then, she is let in as No One, an initiate of the Faceless Men.
In Winterfell, we finally catch up with the Boltons, though they have hardly been missed. Their men are working to rebuild the castle after Ramsay sacked it when Theon had control in Season 2. Theon, beaten and remade into “Reek” by Ramsay’s persistent torture, is now back at the castle of his youth. He’s in the courtyard when he sees the flayed bodies hung up for display in the square where once he hung the two burned bodies of “Bran and Rickon” (though they were bodies of other children burned so that they would be beyond recognition).
Roose Bolton, made the Warden of the North by the late Tywin Lannister, scolds his son over these recent flayings. “We can’t hold the North with terror alone.” His bastard son, made legitimate at the end of last season, flayed the northern Lord Cerwyn and his family when he refused to pay his taxes. “He said the Warden of the North would always be a Stark,” Ramsay told his father.
As Stannis has been trying to tell Jon Snow, the North is a fiercely loyal bunch; many of the northern lords refuse to recognize the Boltons as their regional warden. In the last episode, Stannis received a response to his request for fealty from Lyanna Mormont, the 10-year-old cousin of Ser Jorah Mormont and niece of the late Lord Commander Mormont. In it, the young girl declared, “Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is Stark.”
Therefore, after the death of his sponsor, Tywin Lannister, Roose Bolton arranges for his son to solidify their tenuous grasp on power in the North through an alliance of marriage. “It’s high time you married a suitable bride, and as it happens, I found the perfect girl to solidify our hold on the North.”
As the scene cut to Sansa and Littlefinger on horseback, we all developed a collective pit in our stomachs. Game of Thrones is becoming famous for this style of on-the-nose transitions, so the meaning was clear: the proposal of marriage that Littlefinger had accepted a few episodes ago was not for himself, but for Sansa.
When she recognizes Moat Cailin, the chokepoint between the South and the North (one must pass through here in order to successfully navigate through the bogs and swamps of the Neck), Sansa knows where she is headed and to whom she is promised. “Roose Bolton murdered my brother and betrayed my family!” she protests, originally supposing she was promised to the head of the family. Instead, she is told she will be marrying the legitimized bastard son, Ramsay– a worse prospect, from the audience’s perspective. She’s upset, tears in her eyes, and she protests like the devastated, young girl she still is by age.
Littlefinger: “Winterfell is your home.”
Sansa: “Not anymore.”
Littlefinger: “Always. You’re a Stark… You’re Sansa Stark, eldest surviving child of Ned and Catelyn Stark. Your place is in the North.”
“Don’t you know by now how much I care for you?” Littlefinger tries to reassure her. He’s either lying (because how could he truly care about her if he’s signed her up for a lifetime of torture at the hands of a sexual deviant?) or stupid (uncharacteristically ignorant of the Boltons’ as-advertised penchant for sadistic violence).
“You sit alone in a darkened room mourning their fates. You’ve been a bystander to tragedy from the day they executed your father. Stop being a bystander, you hear me? Stop running. There’s no justice in the world, not unless we make it. You loved your family. Avenge them.”
Sansa, in contrast to her sister, has taken longer to acquire her agency. Slowly, over time, she has learned how to influence the world around her. Under Littlefinger’s tutelage, she is learning how to make backdoor dealings and manipulate others to her advantage. There may be honorable Stark blood in her veins, but she has taken up the ethos of Petyr Baelish’s self-appointed sigil, the mockingbird: a bird whose scientific name means “many-tongued mimic.”
Like Arya, Sansa has to shed some of her old self in order to avenge the death of her family. They have had to remake themselves, with the help of others, in order to survive. Now, the both of them have moved beyond survival. Now, it’s about revenge.
Sansa takes a moment to absorb it all, looking out over the ruined towers of Moat Cailin, before making up her mind. Determined, she drains all emotion from her face and rejoins Littlefinger’s side, leading the force to the causeway herself.
When she arrives at Winterfell, she is all courtesy and smiles for the men responsible for betraying her family and unseating them from their own home. In the background, Ramsay’s murderous girlfriend, Myranda, looks on with much displeasure.
After Sansa is shown to her room, she finds it very different; last time she was there, she was still playing with dolls. Now, she sees it as a woman who has witnessed so much ugliness and suffering. An older woman appears to attend to her. “Welcome home, Lady Stark,” she says, then follows with, “The North remembers.” This phrase, like “A Lannister always pays his debts” and “Winter is coming” serves as both a warning and show of regional solidarity. In this way, the old woman is quietly rebelling against her new lords and showing Sansa where her true allegiance lies.
Luckily, Brienne and Pod are still on her trail. As they make camp, they share stories about their past. Podrick Payne was made to be Tyrion’s squire after he was pardoned for a crime punishable by death. Tywin pardoned him because he is a distant cousin to Ser Ilyn Payne (the mute knight who was ordered to behead Ned Stark, thereby making him a prominent member of Arya’s hit list).
Pod is a bit more talkative and a bit kinder than his relative. He tells Brienne that she’s the best fighter he’s ever seen, and that he’s proud to be her squire. Brienne is touched, and offers to teach him how to fight and ride, at last accepting him as her page.
“You were a Kingsguard to Renly Baratheon, weren’t you? Lord Tyrion said he was a good man.” “He was,” Brienne replies. She then recounts a story about a ball her father held for her. The boys fought over her, which made her feel wonderful until she realized it was all a cruel, Pygmalion/She’s All That-style joke. Renly Baratheon, then the king’s brother, danced with her and made her be strong. “He saved me from being a joke, from that day until his last day, and I could not save him in return. Nothing’s more hateful than failing to protect the one you love.” She vows to avenge Renly’s death by killing Stannis, the face of the shadow monster that she saw commit the crime.
Unbeknownst to Brienne, the two of them are potentially set to converge on Winterfell. Stannis plans to march on Winterfell “within the fortnight” to start his campaign to reclaim Westeros under Baratheon rule. Jon refuses to take part and get vengeance upon the Boltons, who murdered his brother and adoptive mother. He tells Stannis that he is bound by honor to his post as Lord Commander. “Honor got your father killed,” the would-be king reminds him.
Davos sticks around to counsel the young Lord Commander. When Jon insists that he pledged an oath not to get involved with the politics of the realm, Davos disagrees. He cites the oath’s phrase, “The shield that guards the realms of men,” as evidence that perhaps the Night’s Watch should be doing more to protect the people of Westeros—particularly the North, he says, as it has always been a friend to the men of the Night’s Watch. “As long as the Boltons rule the North, the North will suffer.”
Stannis also offers his counsel to Jon, suggesting that he send enemies like Ser Alliser Thorne away from Castle Black in order to solidify his young rule. He recommends sending him to another castle along the Wall, Eastwach-by-the-Sea, but Jon chooses to reward Thorne’s valor in defending Castle Black by naming him First Ranger. This group is the most prestigious of the Night’s Watch, so it is an honorable position to be given and a conciliatory gesture for the man who narrowly lost the election. Wisely, it also will require Thorne to scout beyond the Wall, taking him away from most of the action at Castle Black.
Ser Alliser, a great fighter who proved himself in battle, is given an honorable station, but Jon’s other enemy, Janos Slynt, is given charge of restoring Greyguard, a ruined castle. “I was charged with the defense of King’s Landing when you were soiling your swaddling clothes,” he retorts, defying Jon’s order multiple times. He calls him “boy” throughout, even as he’s eventually hauled off to be executed for defying the Lord Commander’s order.
Though Jon has no idea, he gets some measure of revenge for the death of his father, Ned Stark, by executing Janos Slynt. Slynt was the former commander of the Gold Cloaks, the force responsible for defending the capital. Before being sent to the Wall, Slynt once admitted to Tyrion that he was the one to give the order to kill Ned Stark’s men and arrest him in the throne room.
It’s poetic, then, that Jon embodies his father in this moment. “The man who passes the sentence swings the sword,” Ned once said after executing a deserter of the Night’s Watch in front of his sons. Up until this point, Jon has been unable to live up to his father’s concept of justice (“Law is law”). He was unable to execute Ygritte when he and his men first captured her, though he volunteered to carry out the execution in honor of his father’s lesson. At first it appears as if Slynt’s appeals for mercy will succeed, until Jon swings his mighty Valyrian steel blade clean through; with that sound, he silences his critics.
Margaery and Tommen quickly consummate their marriage, leaving no room for any doubt over their newly-formed alliance. In a world like medieval Europe, where royal beds often became battlegrounds in the ongoing campaign for male heirs, the surest way for Margaery to solidify her seat beside Tommen is to get pregnant. “Did I hurt you?” Tommen asks innocently, in sharp contrast to his brother’s willful brutality. “Does ‘Queen Margaery’ sound strange to you?”
“So strange,” she replies, though it’s clear that, if she’d had a diary in her youth, “Queen Margaery” would have been scrawled all over the pages. She manipulates the innocent Tommen into feeling guilty for “keeping” his mother in King’s Landing, away from her childhood home of Casterly Rock. She also plays on his desire to grow up, to become a lion instead of his mother’s cub, to get him to encourage Cersei to leave the capital.
“Do you think she’s intelligent? I can’t quite tell,” Cersei tells her son as they go for a stroll along the walls. She knows better, of course, but hopes her son does not. However, as a practiced hand at manipulating men, Cersei quickly recognizes Margaery’s scheme playing out in her son’s insistence on her returning home.
Cersei goes to Margaery immediately, though is uncharacteristically meek in the face of the newly-empowered queen. For the first time, Margaery is able to speak almost freely, sticking thinly-veiled barbs into Cersei. “I wish we had some wine for you; it’s a bit early in the day for us.” And, “What’s the proper way to address you now? Queen Mother or Dowager Queen? In any event, judging from the king’s enthusiasm, the Queen Mother will be a Queen Grandmother soon.”
She has been planning this coup for a long time now, waging a war of manipulation against Cersei Lannister. Cersei’s style of rule is, self-admittedly, to make people fear her, while Margaery has always taken the opposite tack (as evidenced by the adoring “smallfolk” lined up outside of the Sept of Baelor to greet “Queen Margaery” like the crowd at an English royal wedding). In the first couple of seasons, all of the women around the royal court were mimicking Cersei’s style of dress, until when, in Season 3, the beloved Margaery began to have more sway over the courtiers.
In this scene, the women surrounding Margaery all continue to wear her style: sleeveless dresses with plunging necklines. However, for the first time, Margaery has dressed herself like Cersei: asymmetric-wrap dress with large, billowing sleeves. Every message she’s sending is one of replacement. Cersei marches away to the sound of mocking laughter and a beating war drum.
Later, the same High Septon who presided over the marriage ceremony is found in Littlefinger’s brothel choosing between seven prostitutes dressed (or undressed) to look like the each of gods in the Faith of the Seven. The previous High Septon was literally torn apart by a hungry mob during the Riot of King’s Landing, perhaps in objection to him being so obviously well-fed. The High Septon, like the pope of the medieval Catholic Church, holds a position of oft-unquestioned power in Westeros; however, if the treatment of the last two is any indication, the people hold less and less regard for the post and for the established order of the Faith.
Under these conditions, fanaticism is quickly taking root in King’s Landing. The Sparrows, who formed as a response to the ongoing suffering of the smallfolk throughout the War of the Five Kings, practice a strict adherence to the Faith. They are in objection to the wayward abuses of the established religious order and the crown itself. This self-abnegating group derives its name from the sparrow, considering it to be the “humblest of birds.” However, as time goes on, the Sparrows are proving to be anything but meek and submissive.
When the High Septon is discovered in the brothel by a group of Sparrows, led by Lancel Lannister, Lancel proclaims, “You are a sinner, and you shall be punished.” They beat him and lead him naked through the streets, chanting “sinner” as they go.
He comes to the Small Council seeking retribution against the Sparrows and their leader, the High Sparrow, asking that the Queen Regent execute the man he holds responsible for his humiliation. When Cersei finds the High Sparrow, an ascetic man who personally ministers to the hungry and the sick, he does not deny the attack on the High Septon. “Hypocrisy is a boil. Lancing a boil is never pleasant,” he tells her.
Cersei surprises everyone, including the High Sparrow, when she admits that she arrested the High Septon instead. “The Faith and the Crown are the two pillars that hold up this world. One collapses, so does the other.” Has Cersei suddenly grown devout? Hardly; it’s probably important to remember that whenever Cersei acts conciliatory, it rarely serves to benefit the other party. “We must do everything necessary to protect one another,” she suggests with a hint of insinuation: I scratch your back, you scratch mine.
When she goes to Maester Qyburn, interrupting him at his experiments, Cersei orders that he send a raven to Littlefinger. “Make sure Littlefinger is clear on the meaning of the word ‘immediately,’” she says. This lends a more sinister air to his plan for Sansa; if Sansa knew he was still in communication with Cersei, she might have agreed to Brienne’s protection after all.
Littlefinger discusses the marriage with Ramsay, telling him that Sansa “has suffered enough.” He claims to not know Ramsay, which is surprising given his typical reach and influence; in the past, Petyr Baelish, like Varys, has known just about everything about everyone. Also, Ramsay has not really been making a secret of his brutality. Ultimately, Littlefinger is either not as smart as we think he is, or he doesn’t care as much about Sansa as he pretends. “I’ll never hurt her, you have my word,” Ramsay promises. If anything is certain, it’s that Littlefinger cares for nothing and no one more than himself.
After seasons of watching Sansa get beaten and psychologically tormented, stripped and threatened, and nearly raped by a mob, things were finally looking up. She escaped King’s Landing and learned her own powers of influence and manipulation. Under Littlefinger’s guidance, she has learned how to stop being a “bystander to tragedy.” Littlefinger plays the long game, using manipulation, knowledge (“Knowledge is power,” he told Cersei in Season 1), and shifting political alliances to achieve his goals. This is the game Sansa has learned to play; therefore, how much torture will she (and we) have to endure before she even has the chance to take back what is hers? Like Margaery and the Lannisters, Sansa’s goal will be to destroy the Boltons from within, but that’s only if Ramsay doesn’t kill her first with extensive physical and psychological torture, or hunt her for sport. (Luckily, as the actress Sophie Turner said in an interview, Sansa “knows how to tiptoe around psychopaths.”) Let’s hope Brienne stays close.
With Roose, Littlefinger discusses the potential alliance of their two houses. As lord of the Eyrie, he holds considerable influence over the other lords of the Vale. While the Vale has so far remained neutral in the War of the Five Kings, Littlefinger insinuates that he may ally with the lords in the North, since the last time that happened they brought down “the greatest dynasty this world has ever known.” The dynasty he is referring to is the Targaryen dynasty; Robert’s Rebellion actually started in the Vale when Jon Arryn, the original Hand of the King and crazy Aunt Lysa’s husband, refused to hand over his wards Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark to the Mad King. Roose Bolton is mistrustful of Littlefinger, but has little choice remaining after the death of his greatest ally, Tywin Lannister.
Finally, across the Narrow Sea, Tyrion and Varys end up in the Free City of Volantis. This city is filled with slaves marked with face tattoos to distinguish their trade. When Tyrion convinces Varys to leave their carriage, they witness a red priestess sermonizing to a crowd about the Lord of Light (the same god followed by Melisandre and Thoros of Myr, whom we have seen bringing Beric Dondarrion back to life). She mentions the Stone Men, who are victims of the Greyscale plague, which is the disfiguring and deadly disease Shireen Baratheon described to Gilly last week. The priestess, a former slave herself, also talks about the “Dragon Queen” as a savior. After Tyrion makes several sly comments, she stares him down as if sensing him from afar. Spooked, Tyrion decides to take Varys to a brothel.
There, they see a popular prostitute imitating Daenerys and professing to have magical powers. Tyrion seeks out another woman whom he likes because he senses her “skeptical mind.” Just as he has convinced her to sleep with him, despite his lack of riches, he realizes that he’s still not quite up to the task. It surprises him, but Shae is still too fresh on his mind.
When he excuses himself to pee off another high perch (as he did on the Wall), he is snatched by the disgraced Ser Jorah Mormont. Last season, Daenerys found out that Jorah had originally been sent as one of Varys’s spies under Robert Baratheon’s rule. Before the show even aired, Jorah had been exiled from Westeros by Ned Stark after he was caught selling poachers into slavery. Varys hired him to spy on Daenerys from the inside. Over time, Jorah developed a love for Daenerys and served her faithfully as an adviser. To fracture this relationship, Tywin Lannister sent an official pardon for Jorah, thanking him for his service to the crown. Daenerys found out and, as Tywin hoped, banished Ser Jorah from her court.
At the same time, Cersei has placed a rather lucrative price on Tyrion. She’s promised a lordship to any man who brings her Tyrion’s head, still believing him to be involved with the murder of her son and father.
So, when Ser Jorah gags Tyrion and says he’s taking him to “the queen,” it’s unclear which queen he means. Will he take Tyrion to Daenerys, hoping to regain her favor by offering one of the despised Lannister clan up on a silver platter? After all, the Lannisters betrayed her father and killed her family. Or, will he take Tyrion to Cersei, hoping to return from exile with his lordship in Westeros restored?
Other thoughts on “High Sparrow”:
- Sophie Turner (Sansa) and Maisie Williams (Arya) continue to be two of the most impressive actors on the show. They both played their emotional scenes to perfection in this episode. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the showrunners admitted how lucky they are to have cast young girls who have grown into amazing actresses. “Sansa is a character we care about almost more than any other, and the Stark sisters have from the very beginning been two characters who have fascinated us the most,” says producer David Benioff. I couldn’t agree more, thanks in large part to Williams and Turner’s work.
- “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword” has been a running symbol of leadership throughout the series. Since Ned demonstrated his brand of justice and leadership in the first episode, many have tried to emulate it to varying degrees of success. All of the older boys present when Ned executed the Night’s Watch deserter have had their hand at it, after Jon Snow’s turn at it this episode.
- When Theon invaded Winterfell, the Stark’s Master-at-Arms, Ser Rodrik Cassel is captured and brought before him. Ser Rodrik taunts Theon, who wants to lock him in a cell. He is convinced by his Greyjoy men to execute the Master-at-Arms for disrespect. Ser Rodrik calls Theon a coward and has to remind him to be the one to swing the sword. When he does, it takes him three hacking tries and a kick to finally sever Ser Rodrik’s head. It’s an apt symbol of his ineffectual leadership and lack of honor.
- In contrast, Robb Stark swung true to behead Lord Karstark, a longtime friend and ally of his family. Karstark murdered two young Lannister captives in retaliation for Catelyn letting Jaime go free, in open defiance of Robb Stark’s command. Like Jon, Robb was tested for his youth, so his execution of Lord Karstark was an important sign of his strength as a young leader. Neither Jon, Robb, nor Ned delighted in their responsibility (afterward, Robb throws down his father’s sword in either anger or disgust), but they accepted it as a necessary condition of maintaining leadership and honor.
- It may be worth noting that, in the last episode, Daenerys does not swing the sword herself in the execution of Mossador. Nor, of course, did Joffrey in the execution of Ned Stark.
- What is moving under those sheets in Qyburn’s room? Qyburn had his maester’s chain stripped from him after the Citadel found out he was practicing forbidden experiments (dissecting living humans to learn more about their anatomy). After Tyrion’s trial by combat, the Mountain was dying with a festering wound. They assumed that he was poisoned by manticore venom coating Oberyn Martell’s spear. Cersei gave Qyburn permission to do whatever he could to save the Mountain, ever a loyal and murderous servant for the Lannister family. At the time, Qyburn warned her that the process may “change him.”