This episode of “Game of Thrones” was one of the best that this season has had to offer. It had some of the most memorable moments of season five so far, as characters who were previously strangers finally met, and Cersei’s (Lena Headey) schemes blew up in her face. Furthermore, the dialogue was great and character interactions were well written and layered with intrigue. I enjoyed it very much, particularly because certain story arcs finally felt as though they were working towards their respective conclusions, and I felt that it was a well-made hour of television.
The episode opened with Sansa (Sophie Turner) in her bedroom at Winterfell; we immediately got to see the state that she was in following the controversial finale to last week’s episode, and we saw the harsh reality that is marriage to Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). Sansa was beaten and bruised but she wasn’t broken – she’s in a horrible position and her life isn’t going how she wants it to, but there’s enough going on to make me hold out hope for her future. Sansa’s conversation with Theon (Alfie Allen) was interesting, because she might not want to be around him and even hate him, but she doesn’t have many friends in Winterfell right now, and the one’s she does have are getting flayed alive.
It seems like she shares my perspective on Ramsay, as she responds to Theon’s warning that Ramsay will hurt her if she disobeys him by saying ‘he already hurts me every night’. Clearly Sansa isn’t going to sit idly by whilst Ramsay psychologically and physically tortures her, as demonstrated by the fact that she silently picked up what looked like a useful weapon during her walk with Ramsay, so we could be in for a significant casualty at Winterfell by the end of the season.
Theon is a strange character for me, because I know that he’s damaged goods, a shell of the man he once was, but there’s nothing left for him to lose. I admit that I wouldn’t want to be flayed alive, and that’s probably the only thing that could make Theon’s situation markedly worse, but I can’t comprehend what he hopes to achieve by remaining loyal to Ramsay. He says that things can always get worse, but for me that isn’t quite true, because I think I’d rather be dead than be Ramsay’s slave.
Both Sophie Turner and Alfie Allen were great in the opening scene – Allen did just enough to display Theon’s fear whilst feigning a moment of clarity, making us wonder whether or not he was actually going to help Sansa, and Sophie Turner showed her pain and distress whilst also demonstrating the urgency of her situation. I liked this scene a lot, even if it didn’t quite convince me that Theon would help Sansa, so it was a nice start to the episode.
Theon’s subsequent tattling to Ramsay was extremely annoying, even though it was obviously coming, because I was wishing that he’d do the right thing. I want Theon to earn some kind of redemption before his story is over, but right now I don’t see that being possible as he turns down every opportunity to help Sansa.
At The Wall, a much kinder bastard began his journey to Hardhome, leaving Sam (John Bradley) in a whole heap of trouble. Jon’s (Kit Harington) journey was followed by the death of Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan), which was a really sad scene. He’s been around since the start of the series, so we’ve had a long time to become attached to him, and I’m easily affected by scenes like this because old age is such a scary prospect to me. I felt that Maester Aemon’s death was pretty well executed overall, but I thought that the writers could’ve done a bit more with his dying hallucinations. The fact that he said he dreamt that he was old was chilling, because I suppose that old age never really feels natural; life always seems like its waiting to be lived for us, so although the body grows tired the mind waits for another day.
But my problem with the scene wasn’t the dialogue that was written, it was what could’ve been explained. I thought that he could’ve spoke more about Aegon’s actions and related them back to the problems that Jon and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) are facing, implicitly of course, which would’ve made more sense given that he is a Targaryen, and also would’ve been a smarter way to utilise his final moments in light of what’s to come.
(SPOILER ALERT FOR JON SNOW) – It was a shame that Jon was away when Maester Aemon died, not only because he has given him valuable advice in the past and the two have formed a bond, but also because they may turn out to be family. If Jon is a Targaryen then Maester Aemon was one of the few family members that he had left in this world, so to not have had a proper goodbye will be crushing for him if he one day makes that discovery. Plus, it’s not clear whether or not Maester Aemon knew about Jon’s parentage, (I’d like to think he did), so his dying words feel a bit like a missed opportunity given that he could’ve told Sam.
Because Jon is away and Stannis (Stephen Dillane) has begun his march towards Winterfell, the time spent at The Wall in this episode was largely devoted to Sam, which was interesting because we rarely get to see him as a fully-fledged character. I thought that John Bradley commanded the screen quite well as the camera lingered more on him than he might be used to, and the fact that he was the focal point at The Wall in this episode didn’t make the scenes there any worse for me. I was glad that his relationship with Gilly (Hannah Murray) was allowed to blossom, because normally their alone time feels like a chore to watch, as they are either complaining or placating one another. In this episode they actually demonstrated their affection, and Sam showed his bravery in attempting to save her from what would’ve been a horrible sexual assault, so I was able to feel more connected to their relationship and get a feel for how it could work if they both survive the winter.
There were a couple of things which annoyed me about the scenes at The Wall in this episode, although they probably fall more under the category of nit-picking than of serious flaws. When Aemon’s funeral was taking place I didn’t feel that Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) needed to make his comment about Sam losing all of his friends. I get that he’s supposed to be a character for the audience to dislike, but I don’t hate him as much as the show wants me to; he’s an antagonist because he dislikes Jon and he wants to be in charge, but his opinions are often valid and he fights for the right cause. He might be annoying, but the show doesn’t have to position him as a horrible human being to make him a compelling character, so lines like this just feel unnecessary. When he’s being overly nasty I’m actually taken out of the episode, because I see this behaviour as manipulation by the writers, rather than what his character would actually do.
Everyone watching the show could see that Aemon’s death was there to propel Sam’s character forward and make him more of a man before winter comes, leaving him exposed and maintaining drama at The Wall whilst its leading man is away, so the writers didn’t have to prod us with a stick so that we would make the connection. Sometimes implying a certain issue is enough, particularly if you trust the actors to do their part, so all that was needed here was a worried expression on Sam’s face and a close-up shot of said facial expression. This isn’t going to affect how I rate the episode as a whole, but it’s small decisions like this that make the crucial difference between quality and mediocrity, so when intelligence and thoughtfulness aren’t fully displayed it really gets to me.
Stannis’ journey away from The Wall hasn’t been very fruitful so far, as his army has been depleted by sellsword desertion and some of his horses have died of starvation. Winter is coming and his army only has so long to make it to Winterfell whilst also maintaining their advantage, so step in Melisandre (Carice van Houten) with an unwelcome suggestion – sacrifice Shireen (Kerry Ingram). It’s been apparent this season that Shireen has had significantly more screen time than she would normally receive, and the writers have obviously been trying to push the fact that Stannis is a good father with the right things at heart, so the writing has most definitely been on the wall for the character. I don’t believe that Stannis will sacrifice his daughter, because we’ve seen that he loves her and I think he’s got enough about him to choose her over victory, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’ll be spared.
What I’m really hoping for is for Melisandre to act against Stannis, because the consequences of that kind of action would be fascinating. I could definitely see that happening, because she has Selyse’s (Tara Fitzgerald) backing for every decision that she makes, so she could use her to get to Shireen and do the deed. If that does happen then I don’t know what the future holds for Melisandre, but I would be more than happy to find out.
Both Carice van Houten and Stephen Dillane were great in this scene, as they have been all season, and you could definitely feel the tension and conflicting thoughts in the room. Whether or not Stannis agrees with Melisandre’s approach, he still trusts her and believes that she knows what’s best, so he’s bound to at least think of agreeing to her plan. She’s loyal to him and she’s been very useful, so he takes her very seriously. It was a scene filled with emotion from both actors, as they conveyed how desperately they want to not only defeat the Boltons and take the Iron Throne, but also be around for the battle against the White Walkers. They’re the only people in this world that are playing the game of thrones whilst also looking at the bigger picture, because the Night’s Watch isn’t interested in the throne, and everyone else isn’t interested in the Night’s Watch. This season has really displayed the fact that Stannis isn’t just some warmonger seeking power, he has more on his mind than that, and as a result he’s seemed much less one-dimensional.
This week’s foray into Meereen began with a healthy dose of sexposition involving Daenerys and the ever-insufferable Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman). I think I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, I don’t like Daario at all! I hate them as a couple, I hate Michiel Huisman’s delivery, and I just wish that the writers would kill him off. He’s only there to act as an adviser to Daenerys, usually providing a completely naïve and unwise perspective on the situations she faces, so I don’t know why he’ll be needed from here on out.
This scene broke my immersion slightly, because when actors cover up during sex scenes it annoys me and reminds me that I’m watching a television show. How Michiel Huisman’s arms were carefully positioned so as to hide Emilia Clarke’s nipples, and the sheets were just high enough to cover both of their bums, just reminds me that this is a scene put together by a director and his team who are there in the background positioning the actors. I know that this is done on basically every television show, but it still seems ridiculous to me – if you don’t want to be involved in sex scenes then don’t take part in an adult television show; at home you aren’t going to cover your body when there’s no one else around!
Having criticised the scene a bit, I should say that it wasn’t actually terrible, and it didn’t hamper how I felt about the episode. There were some pretty decent lines in there, even if they felt as though they didn’t need to be said. For example, Daario said that ‘even slaves have a choice, death or slavery’ and that was a nice piece of dialogue because there’s a few things you could take from it. I took it as Daario basically telling Daenerys that she doesn’t need to be as concerned with Slaver’s Bay as she is right now, which was backed up by his advice to round up the masters and be done with the whole situation, and that’s something which the audience thinks week in week out. Daario acts as an ignorant onlooker for Daenerys to learn from in many ways, because his advice is often foolhardy and careless, so by considering it she’s able to better understand what her role is in Meereen and what being the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms will entail.
Probably the best line that came from that scene was ‘all rulers are either butchers or meat’, because in reality being the undisputed leader of a world of diverging cultures and traditions doesn’t come cheap. If Daenerys really wants to rule then she can’t be so obsessed with justice and law, because these things are often obscured by events out of your control. When you play the game of thrones you either win or you die, and that’s not just a fun phrase to put on a poster. If you want to rule you have to be willing to make hard decisions, because at the end of the day you’ll always have enemies, and they won’t always be the epitome of evil. You can’t have people questioning your authority day in day out and sometimes the only course of action will be an extreme one.
I thought it was fitting that after this line was delivered we cut to King’s Landing, because we have a ruler there who is the prime example of the second option that Daario posed. Tommen Baratheon (Dean-Charles Chapman) might as well come with cooking instructions, because he is on the far end of the spectrum as far as leaders are concerned. His wife sits in a dirty cell whilst he sits in his finery, and all he does about it is bitch and moan. He allows his mother to take the lead again, as she manipulates him into thinking that he’s somehow in control of matters so far beyond his comprehension, and in doing so he loses her as well! He’s completely out of his depth and if he isn’t careful he’ll be the one to pay, because whilst Cersei is imprisoned there’s always the worry that the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) will find out about how he was conceived.
Jonathan Pryce has been a masterful addition to the cast this year, playing a character that feels so far removed from the norm in King’s Landing but also managing to feel so settled in this world of ‘murderers, thieves and rapists’. He doesn’t play the same game as the opposition, and he’s actually the closest thing we have to a ‘good guy’ in King’s Landing, yet he’s just as much of a schemer as everyone else. There’s something incredibly unnerving about him even though he’s fighting for the gods, and seeing him exercise his absolute power right now is very entertaining.
His interaction with Olenna (Diana Rigg) was superb, and she might’ve even topped her performance in the previous episode. Her delivery was sublime and the writing for her character is top notch. She’s a joy to watch and her honesty is such a relief on a show swelling with pragmatism and deceit – however, she might have met her match in the form of the High Sparrow.
She’s a master of finding ulterior motives and understanding the finer points of human psychology, but like most of the people in King’s Landing she’s yet to fully get to grips with what motivates him. There’s no way to buy him and no way to appease him, because as far as he sees it right is right and wrong is wrong. He’s a stubborn and unmoving antagonist, so to control him will take more than bribery or words of anger. However, Olenna still managed to find a way to put the ball back in her court, as her alliance with Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) proved its worth once again by the end of the episode.
If there’s one scene that brought this episode down a notch it was Jaime’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) interaction with Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free). There was nothing drastically wrong with their short conversation, but just like everything else that’s happened in Dorne this season it was insignificant and unsatisfying. It basically consisted of a soap-opera like declaration from Myrcella of ‘you don’t know me’, just not in those words. It seemed to be there to push the idea that Jaime is a bad father in need of redemption, but I think the audience is smart enough to see that without needing Myrcella to say it.
Something had to be shown of Jaime in this episode so that we had an idea of how he was being treated, but I would’ve preferred if he had something interesting to say, or even if his scene had been there for comic relief. I get it, Jaime hasn’t done right by his kids, one’s dead, one’s in danger in a foreign land, and the other sits on the Iron Throne with his tail between his legs as two angry woman play tug of war with his emotions, but there’s no need to push it in our faces.
The scene in the cells at Dorne was interesting, if not a little confusing. The Sand Snakes still don’t make a lot of sense to me, and individually they don’t have a whole lot of personality, which is worrying after seven episodes. The fact that Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) bared all to Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and revelled in the fact that he liked what he saw gave her something of a personality, but it was still unclear why she’d give him the antidote when moments before he and Jaime thwarted the Sand Snakes’ plan. Yes, it was implied that Tyene was sexually attracted to him, but when the Sand Snakes were first introduced they appeared to be a focused and vicious group, so this scene only left me feeling unsure about who they really are and what they want from the world.
I know a lot of people might be wondering why Tyene had the antidote in the first place, and they might possibly see it as a convenient plot device to keep Bronn alive, but I think it makes enough sense to be passable. If you think about it, it’s possible that her own dagger would be used against her if she was disarmed in combat, so to carry an antidote for the poison it’s laced with makes sense to me.
Finally, there were two massive moments in this episode, and together they elevated it into probably the most significant and memorable hour of the season so far. The first was my most anticipated moment of season five before it began, although I’d hoped it would come much sooner, as Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) finally met Daenerys. Seeing Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke on screen together for the first time was a BIG deal, and something which admittedly gave me goose bumps, however sad people might think that is.
The moments leading up to their meeting weren’t perfect, because it seemed a bit unnecessary for Jorah (Iain Glen) to take out every single fighter before he spoke to Daenerys. Obviously it made things easier, but it felt like a very showy way of making Jorah out to be a badass before he slowly revealed his identity. Also, Daenerys’ reaction to the bloodshed felt ridiculous given the fact that only two episodes ago she fed an innocent man to her dragons without remorse. I’m sorry but if you’re willing to do that then you should be more than happy to watch a little knife fight!
Still, when the scene arrived I was in a forgiving mood, as “The Gift” (a.k.a. Tyrion Lannister) told Daenerys who he was and we were finally given what we’ve wanted for so long. Daenerys now has an adviser worthy of a Queen, rather than Daario Naharis who isn’t fit for a cow. Their meeting wasn’t a 10/10 as far as execution goes, but it was exciting and the fact that there was a teasing lead up to it gave the scene a ‘will they, won’t they’ vibe that had me on the edge of my seat.
The second moment hasn’t been building up for quite so long, but it was still very satisfying when it arrived. Cersei’s detainment at the hands of the High Sparrow was so enjoyable from my perspective, because she’s been cocky and self-assured all season, working everyone over and getting what she wants, so to see that backfire so monumentally right at the end of this episode was incredibly rewarding.
In both this episode and its predecessor Cersei’s smugness has felt so out of place, because she really isn’t in control; I don’t know what sort of sway she thought she held over the High Sparrow, because he didn’t need her from the moment she set him loose, so to see that realisation hit her was pretty awesome. Now there’s nothing she can do, she’s out of the picture and in deep deep trouble, which is interesting moving forward and gives the scenes in King’s Landing even more urgency.
These two well-established and talented actors played off one another wonderfully here and in previous episodes, and I can’t wait to see how their dynamic shifts now that the balance of power has been placed firmly at the feet of the High Sparrow.
Overall, I think this episode was very strong. I had a couple of small issues with it, but they were mostly trivial and relate more to my preferences than anything else. “The Gift” was a very well-paced episode, filled with great performances, memorable lines, and two genuinely noteworthy scenes that will hopefully kick the season into life as it nears its close. We’re at the point where “Game of Thrones” usually excels, and this episode did a fine job of reminding me of that, wetting my appetite for what is to come. This episode offered significant payoff after a season of placing building blocks, making it both enjoyable and memorable, whilst also making me appreciate the episodes that came before it that little bit more.