Power and control are the prizes awarded in this game of thrones. However, in the wake of Robert Baratheon’s death, no one has held onto the actual authority to wield that power unchallenged. In “The Gift,” the authority of many characters comes into question as they lose some of the control they worked so hard to acquire.
There are mutterings of dissent at the Wall as Jon Snow readies to bring all of the wildlings south to settle in the land known as The Gift. Sansa is once again stripped of much of her control, locked away and abused by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton. Stannis is losing men and beasts to the advancing winter and is unwilling to sacrifice for a greater assurance of victory. Daenerys struggles to control an insurrection against her authority by marrying into the local ruling elite and agreeing to reopen the fighting pits. Jaime cannot convince his daughter, Myrcella, to return to King’s Landing, and Lady Olenna is surprised how little authority she has over the High Sparrow. Worst of all, Cersei has given up all of her authority to the Faith Militant, assuming that she could control them. In the end, only Littlefinger may be left smiling in the chaos.
“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” – Littlefinger – Season 3, Episode 6
We start at the Wall, where Jon is readying to head north with Tormund Giantsbane and a group of rangers. They are heading to Hardhome, where the remainder of the wildlings are camped out, hoping to convince them to journey south of the Wall for protection against the invading White Walkers. Not only does Jon believe that this is the right thing to do for the sake of the many lives at stake, but it is also an attempt to deprive the White Walkers of an easy army; the mysterious creatures are known to reanimate the dead as wights (or, zombies), swelling their ranks as they kill their enemies.Still, this remains an unpopular decision with the men of the Night’s Watch, who show their displeasure openly as Jon prepares to leave. In particular, the camera focuses on Olly, Jon Snow’s personal steward. While he once looked at his master with admiration and respect, his adoration has quickly spoiled. Even despite the fact that his parents were murdered by Ygritte and her band, Olly was raised with a natural hatred for the wildlings after generations of attacks.
The Night’s Watch is “the shield that guards the realms of men” and for most Westerosi, that means guarding against the wildling armies to the north. However, the Wall and the Night’s Watch were originally established around 8,000 years ago to keep out the White Walkers, not the wildlings. After thousands of years, the White Walkers disappeared from human consciousness in all but myths and ghost stories, and the wildlings became the natural enemies of the Night’s Watch. Jon Snow intends to return them to their original purpose and gather the living against the army of the dead, but his men are having a much harder time breaking with thousands of years of tradition.
Jon makes the dubious decision of trusting his enemy, Ser Alliser Thorne, to command Castle Black in his absence. As he says goodbye to Sam, his friend gives him some of the cache of dragonglass (obsidian) that he found at the Fist of the First Men in Season 2. When Sam used one of the daggers against the White Walker in Season 3, the creature turned to ice and shattered. (He even gave some daggers and arrowheads to Bran Stark and his crew before they headed north of the Wall.)
Soon after Jon departs, Sam loses his friend Maester Aemon, too. The old man, who has been slowly on the decline for some time, dies with his steward Sam at his side. Before passing, Aemon remembers his brother, Egg, also known as King Aegon Targaryen. He looks at Gilly’s baby and recalls his brother, the father to the Mad King and grandfather to Daenerys. He says that Egg was a “jolly fellow” before he unexpectedly became king as a fourth son. He warns Gilly and Sam to get south before it’s too late, then dies after a famous quote directly from the books.
“Egg! I dreamed that I was old.”
Aemon, the last known Targaryen other than Daenerys, is eulogized by Sam the following day. “He was the blood of the dragon, but now his fire has gone out, and now his watch is ended.” The brothers of the Night’s Watch repeat the final phrase before the funeral pyre is lit. Ominously, Ser Alliser leans over to Sam and warns, “You’re losing all your friends, Tarly.”
Indeed, without the wise, gentle, kind service and counsel of Maester Aemon, and without their Lord Commander, the Night’s Watch seems to revert back to its baser foundation. After all, the unit is comprised primarily of disreputable men, criminals, and outcasts. Gilly is set upon by two brothers of the Night’s Watch, and when Sam comes to her defense, he is unable to save her. He gets beaten badly and yet summons the courage to stand and face them one last time. Luckily, Jon’s direwolf Ghost makes a surprise appearance and scares the two men off. As Gilly affectionately patches him up, they end up sleeping together (and breaking his vow to the Night’s Watch).
In Winterfell, Sansa has been locked in her bedchamber by day and abused every night since the wedding. Reek enters to bring her food and she corners him, her arms covered with bruises, begging him to help her. She reminds Theon of his debt to her family after his betrayal, but he insists that he is “Not Theon, my lady– Reek.”
She wonders what Ramsay has done to break him so fully, but Reek refuses to say. She calls him by his true name—Theon Greyjoy, the last remaining son of Balon Greyjoy, prince of the Iron Islands—and asks him to light a candle in the Broken Tower to signal her allies. He reluctantly promises to help her and takes the candle out into the snow storm. He climbs a flight of stairs that could pass for the Broken Tower, but ends up in Ramsay’s chambers instead. Conflicted though he may seem, Reek is still under Ramsay’s power.
When Ramsay calls Sansa to him later, he makes it clear that Reek turned her in. She was unwise to trust Ramsay’s pet, though he may have been her last hope for escape, and it cost the life of the old woman who had brought her such comfort. When Sansa first arrived at Winterfell, the old woman reminded her that “the North remembers,” and that she should light a candle if she ever needed help from friends. “We do breed them tough in the North,” Ramsay tells Sansa, remarking that the old woman’s heart only gave out before he flayed her face.
Earlier, as they walked along the newly-reconstructed ramparts, Sansa reminded her husband Ramsay of the legal concerns over his rights as heir to his father’s house and wardenship of the North, in light of his stepmother’s pregnancy. Should Walda Bolton give birth to a true-born son, Ramsay’s claims may be negated, even though he has been legitimized by royal decree. Sansa tells Ramsay that Tommen Baratheon, the king who declared Ramsay a true Bolton, is in fact a bastard himself, and implies that his legitimacy (and subsequent decrees) may one day come into question.
Ramsay is annoyed by her obvious needling, but replies cheerfully that bastards can still find a place of authority in the world and uses her half-brother, Jon Snow, as an example. Sansa hears for the first time that Jon Snow was made Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and she seems almost hopeful at the prospect of another powerful ally within reach of Winterfell, until she is brought to the old woman’s flayed corpse. She chokes back tears as she is sent to be locked in her bedchamber once again. Luckily, this time she managed to steal a weapon to take with her.
Brienne still stands vigil over Winterfell, staring at the Broken Tower, hoping for a sign she will never receive. Unfortunately, Reek not only refused to help Sansa, but also took away her ability to signal Brienne for help. Now that Ramsay knows of the plan, he tells Sansa, “You should hold onto your candles; the nights are so long now.”
“The night is dark and full of terror… but the fire burns them all away.” – Melisandre (Season 2, Episode 1)
Stannis’s army is stuck in its march south from Castle Black, set back by the same storm that is covering everything from the Wall to Winterfell in snow. While Ramsay boasts that his northern men are used to “fighting in the frost,” Stannis’s army of sellswords is unaccustomed to such conditions. Forty horses died overnight and the food supply lines have been closed off by the snow. The Stormcrows, one of the mercenary groups Stannis hired, also rode off in the night, loyal to no one but gold.
Under these conditions, Davos counsels Stannis to retreat to Castle Black and wait out the storm. However, Stannis refuses. “I retreated from King’s Landing [at the Battle of the Blackwater]. If I retreat again, I’ll become the King Who Ran.” With winter coming, Stannis is hesitant to get stuck at Castle Black for the duration. He chooses to risk everything. “We march to victory, or we march to defeat, but we go forward, only forward.”
When Davos leaves, Stannis turns to Melisandre and is noticeably less assured. She is said to have foreseen his victory at Winterfell (“I have seen the flayed-man banners lowered to the ground.”) and reminds him that he, too, has seen a “great battle in the snow” by looking into the flames of her fire.
However, in order for victory to be ensured, she tells him that sacrifices must be made—human sacrifices. To Melisandre and the Lord of Light, the offering of king’s blood is the most potent form of sacrifice; after she harvested blood from King Robert’s bastard, Gendry, and put the leeches in the fire for each of the “false kings,” Robb Stark and Joffrey Baratheon died. She remarks to Stannis that his daughter, Shireen, has king’s blood, and suggests that her blood offer may be required for victory at Winterfell. Stannis, committed to his daughter and only heir, refuses to comply with Melisandre’s wishes and orders her to leave.
All the way to the south, in Dorne, Jaime the Kingsguard is held prisoner in a lavish apartment while Bronn and the Sand Snakes are locked away in cells. Jaime gets a chance to meet with Myrcella, the niece/daughter he hardly knows, who professes to feel at home in Dorne. She has fallen in love with Trystane and does not feel the danger that Jaime knows is at risk for a Lannister in Martell territory. She is skeptical of his “diplomatic mission” to return her to King’s Landing and refuses to go with him.
In the cells, the Sand Snakes listen to Bronn sing “The Dornishman’s Wife” with a mixture of amusement and annoyance. Tyene, the daughter of Ellaria Sand and Oberyn Martell, seduces Bronn through the bars in order to elevate his heart rate. When he begins to get light-headed and bleeds from the nose, she admits that she laced her daggers with a poison called The Long Farewell (her father was also famous for putting poison on his spears, earning him the nickname The Viper). She offers him the antidote, so long as he calls her the most beautiful girl in the world. He complies, drinks it, and passes out.
Across the Narrow Sea, Jorah is sold by the slaver Malko to Yezzan zo Qaggaz, a former Great Master of Meereen (the ruling elite slave traders that were removed from power by Daenerys). Tyrion manages to convince Yezzan to purchase him, as well, by attacking the boy who was whipping him with a surprising flourish. The crowd laughs, clearly entertained by Tyrion’s antics, so Yezzan buys the “funny man.”
In the royal bed, Daenerys and her lover, Daario Naharis (a sellsword and leader of the mercenary group known as the Second Sons), discuss her upcoming marriage to the former Great Master, Hizdahr zo Loraq. Daario asks if she might marry him, instead, but she says she has no choice; she must marry someone from Meereen in order to ally herself to the cause of the local people. “Everyone has a choice,” Daario tells her. “Even slaves have a choice: death or slavery.” When she still refuses, Daario calls her “the only person in Meereen who is not free.”
To give her one final piece of advice, Daario suggests that she round up all of the Great Masters and kill them on the day of the Great Games. Some of these former slave traders are suspected of leading the Sons of the Harpy, the gold-masked insurgency movement against Daenerys’s campaign to abolish slavery; however, Daenerys and her advisors have been unable to sniff out the guilty parties. Daario’s solution is to slaughter them all to set an example. Daenerys, almost always opposed to unjustified violence, refuses. “I’m a queen, not a butcher.”
“All rulers are either butchers or meat,” Daario replies.
Though Daenerys agreed to open the fighting pits for freed men only, Jorah and the other men are still traded and chained like slaves. They end up in one of the lesser fighting pits of Meereen, but compete in front of Queen Daenerys and her betrothed, Hizdahr. Jorah cannot wait to get out into the ring and makes a grand entrance, incapacitating his fellow fighters with finesse, but without bloodshed.
While at first horrified by the violence, Daenerys is intrigued by this skilled fighter who spares the men their lives. When he removes his masked helmet to reveal himself as Ser Jorah Mormont, her interest turns to displeasure.
After all, she had Jorah banished when she discovered that he had spied on her for Varys and King Robert in Westeros. Daenerys blames Robert Baratheon for her family’s overthrow and murder, so Jorah spying for the king was the ultimate betrayal. Jorah claimed to have stopped providing King’s Landing with information once he started loving and believing in Daenerys, but admits that he revealed information about her pregnancy with Khal Drogo’s child—enough information to almost get her killed by a wine merchant/assassin in Vaes Dothrak. Even though he saved her in that moment, he hid his part in the plot until a letter was received from King’s Landing, offering him a pardon for the crimes that got him banished from Westeros in the first place (slave trading, incidentally) in return for his service as a spy against Daenerys.
It is clear that Daenerys still has not forgiven Jorah for his betrayal and is unhappy to see him. Desperate to get back into Daenerys’s camp, Ser Jorah tells her that he has brought her a gift just as she’s about to have him forcibly removed. Tyrion, who had his chains cut by another guard, appears at just the right moment, presenting himself as Jorah’s gift: a Lannister on a silver platter.
In addition to Robert Baratheon, Daenerys also holds Tywin Lannister responsible for the defeat of her father and the massacre of her family. Tywin remained neutral throughout Robert’s Rebellion until it was clear that her father, the Mad King Aerys, was going to lose the war. He then marched his forces into King’s Landing under the guise of giving aid to the king, only to order the city sacked and the royal family murdered. The bodies of Daenerys’s dead aunt and cousins were shown to Robert as proof of Tywin’s loyalty, and Cersei was wed to him soon after to ally their houses. Tyrion, though not directly related to the events that destroyed the Targaryen dynasty, is a tempting offer of reconciliation.
Unbeknownst to Daenerys, King’s Landing is in turmoil following the rearmament of the Faith Militant and the arrest of the queen and her brother. Lady Olenna, the Queen of Thorns and famed matriarch of the Tyrell family, meets with the High Sparrow and berates him for imprisoning her grandchildren according to Cersei’s plan.
“A man of the people, is that your game? It’s an old game, dull and unconvincing. A man of the people who does Cersei’s dirty work for her.”
The High Sparrow is unflinching in his belief that Margaery and Loras are both guilty before the eyes of the gods. When Olenna offers him money, he says, “I imagine this is strange for you. Everyone you meet has a hidden motive and you pride yourself on sniffing it out.” The High Sparrow’s motives are clear, or so he says—he serves the gods, following the holy text known as The Seven-Pointed Star. “The gods’ laws must be applied to all, equally.”
Lady Olenna, surprised to find she is without influence, makes one last threat. “When House Tyrell stops sending our crops to the capital, everyone here will starve, and I’ll make sure the hungry know who to blame.”
The High Sparrow is unmoved. He asks her if she is the one personally sowing the fields or harvesting the crops. Of course, the answer is no; her people work the land for her family while the Tyrells get rich off of it. “A lifetime of wealth and power has left you blind in one eye. You are the few, we are the many. When the many stop fearing the few…” He trails off, and Lady Olenna is rightly concerned; a popular uprising, spurred on by religious fanaticism, would be a powerful force to undermine authority during these unstable times.
As she leaves the Great Sept of Baelor, she receives a letter from Littlefinger with his mockingbird sigil, telling her to meet him at his ransacked brothel. “You’ve always been rather impressed by yourself, haven’t you?” she chides him when she arrives, bitter over his involvement in her grandson’s arrest (he presented Cersei with Olyvar, the male prostitute who slept with Loras and testified against him during the Holy Inquest).
Olenna reminds him of their shared role in murdering King Joffrey and says that their fates are bound; should her house fall, she will be taking him down with her. Littlefinger claims that he had to answer Cersei’s call and provide her with Olyvar, but that he has another gift for Olenna and the Tyrells: “same kind I gave Cersei, a handsome young man.”
This young man turns out to be none other than Brother Lancel, née Lancel Lannister, who was sleeping with Cersei back in Season 1. Cersei was of course using this incestuous relationship to her advantage, involving Lancel, Robert’s squire, in a plot to get the king drunk and fatally gored on a hunt. He was then shamed and pushed to the brink by Tyrion on multiple different occasions, and was later wounded in the Battle of Blackwater (when he dared to stand up to Cersei, she punched him in his wound). He retreated from King’s Landing to recover from his wounds and found the Sparrows somewhere along the way, all too ready to give up his Lannister name.
When Lancel returned to King’s Landing as an ascetic, he tried to get Cersei to repent for their mutual sins. She brushed him off then as before, but was shortsighted not to see where his involvement in the Faith Militant would lead.
Blinded by pride and so sure of her own power, Cersei visits Margaery in the jail cells of the Sept. She can hardly contain her gleeful smiles as she goes about denying her involvement in Margaery’s wretched condition. So much of Cersei’s life has been influenced by the words of the seer, Maggy, that it’s no wonder this season opened on the flashback to that fateful day.
“You’ll be queen, for a time. Then comes another, younger, more beautiful, to cast you down and take all you hold dear.” – Maggy the Frog
Cersei thinks that she has somehow controlled her fate by conspiring against Margaery. If that’s the case, then the rest of the prophecy might not come true, either. “Gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds,” Maggy said of Cersei’s children, implying that none of them will survive. Joffrey has already died, but she still hopes to protect Tommen and Myrcella. Whatever her flaws, she has always tried to keep her children from harm.
“I would do anything for you, anything to keep you from harm. I would burn cities to the ground. You are all that matters. You, and your sister. The moment you came into this world, my boy. My only boy.”
When she meets with the High Sparrow, still positively glowing in her success of ruining Queen Margaery, she wonders what her fate will be. He tells her about the process, how there will be a trial held for both Margaery and Loras where seven septons will decide their fate. If they confess before the trial, they will be shown the “Mother’s mercy,” which means many things depending on the degree of the crime and their degree of contrition. This judicial system is from centuries ago, before the Targaryens put an end to the practice. The Faith used to be able to dole out justice and hold trials for all people deemed to have defied the laws of the gods, including kings. Cersei returned that power to them without foreseeing the consequences.
The High Sparrow references the simple, unadorned altar before them as he speaks. “Strip away the gold and the ornaments, this is what remains. Simple, solid, and true… What will we find when we strip away your finery?”
The first cracks appear in Cersei’s confident gaze as she senses that the tides are turning against her. Soon, Lancel appears as Littlefinger promised. The High Sparrow presents him as a man “broken in body in spirit” who “unburdened himself” piece by piece until he could be made whole in the Faith.
In unburdening himself, he has revealed much about Cersei’s sins, and she is dragged off by septas. These female clergy are very different from Septa Mordane, the kindly tutor and mentor of Arya and Sansa Stark. They handle the Queen Mother roughly and ignore her threats (“Look at my face. It’s the last thing you’ll see before you die.”), locking her away just like Margaery and Loras, to suffer in waiting for her trial.
Other Thoughts on The Gift:
- With winter certainly upon the kingdom, it’s helpful to remember that the seasons in Game of Thrones are all of varying and unpredictable lengths. When the series first started, summer had already lasted for nine years. Many children have never known winter (including Bran, who is called a “sweet summer child”). Many maesters fear that the coming winter will last as long as the preceding summer, or over a decade in length. When Stannis refuses to head back to Castle Black it’s because he knows that he may end up there for several years or more, waiting out the winter.
- At the fighting pits, Daenerys wears an amazing necklace of a three-headed dragon, a reference to the dragon on the Targaryen sigil.
- I have no idea why the Sand Snakes gave Bronn an antidote. Why would they care if he died? Why would they poison him, if not for that end? I thought for sure that Bronn was dead in this episode, but clearly the showrunners love him too much to do away with him just yet (tell that to all the other characters who have been killed over the years).
- Speaking of deaths, Maester Aemon is the only character to have died of natural causes (on screen).