As television has become increasingly artistically ambitious, better shows have started to develop strong house styles: Think of the landscape shots from odd perspectives in “Breaking Bad,” or the carefully-framed domestic interiors on “Girls.” In its fifth season, the visual thread that seems to tie together episodes of “Game of Thrones” is the show’s use of blunt cuts to drive momentum from one scene to the next: think the transition from young Cersei to Queen Cersei in “The Wars to Come,” or the blunt juxtaposition of Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) tart question “How many dwarves are there in the world? Is Cersei going to kill them all?” with a subsequent shot of a head being plunked down on a table in “The House of Black and White.”
Both of those episodes were directed by Michael Slovis, who worked as a cinematographer on “Breaking Bad.” And while the show moves to a new director, Mark Mylod, “High Sparrow” also has a straight cut that left me in shock, a feeling I think I probably share with many other readers of the books.
The moment that stunned me came during an already-tense dinner between Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) and his son Ramsay (Iwan Rheon), in which the two are being served by Ramsay’s hostage and torture victim, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). “We don’t have enough men to hold the north if the other houses rise up against us…I had a pact with Tywin Lannister and Tywin Lannister is dead,” Roose tells his son, who he is trying to shape into a respectable heir after years of letting Ramsay indulge his basest impulses. “The remaining Lannisters are a thousand miles south dealing with that fact…The best way to forge a lasting alliance isn’t by peeling a man’s skin off. The best way is marriage. Now that you’re a Bolton by royal decree, it’s high time you marry a suitable bride. And as it happens, I’ve found the perfect girl to solidify our hold on the north.”
Cut to Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Petyr Baelish (Aiden Gillen). The sharp transition made what was happening clear before Baelish opened his mouth to offer a word of explanation. But in those moments before he spoke, I tried to convince myself that it couldn’t possibly be true. In Martin’s novels, Ramsay ends up marrying a girl who has been presented to him as Arya Stark, though she is in fact an imposter, dressed up to disguise the fact that the real Arya has slipped loose of all the adults in Westeros who pursued her, and is Braavos, studying to avenge herself on all of them. Ramsay subjects his bride to dreadful sexual torture, forcing Theon to act as his accomplice. As I explained in the video we shot about the episode, the idea that Sansa might be subjected to this after all she has already endured is unbearable.
One of the things I’ve tended to appreciate about “Game of Thrones” is that while the show is undeniably brutal, it’s tended to balance out some of the uglier aspects of violence against or cruelty towards women that appear in Martin’s work with opportunities for women to appear interesting, strong and competent. Instead of literally having her flesh chewed off her face while she’s alive and conscious to feel the pain, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) gets to live, unmaimed, to fight the Hound and pursue her vow to protect the Stark girls. Instead of merely being neglected by her father and at risk of her mother’s madness, Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram) is revealed to be a kindhearted, intelligent little girl. It might be cliche, but it’s a profound emotional relief.
The thing about revenge narratives, or about female characters who come out swinging in response to the abuse they’ve suffered, is that to get to their victories, we have to get through their abuse first. I appreciate what Baelish is trying to inspire Sansa to do when he tells her, “You’ve been running all your life. Terrible things happen to your family and you weep. 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. Stop running. There’s no justice in the world, not unless we make it. You loved your family. Avenge them.” But I dread the prospect of the pain Sansa might have to endure first.
For all the fear and ambivalence I feel about this change to Martin’s books, and it’s a big one, there’s an upside, too. If Sansa was safe from the Lannisters in Martin’s novels, she was very much in Baelish’s clutches, and he appeared to be merely grooming her to replace her late mother in his affections, rather than tutoring her in the ways of power. Sansa’s story in “High Sparrow” is part of a strong, and surprisingly tender theme that runs through the episode: the things men and women learn when they find themselves in partnerships that might not have been possible in their old lives.
The most touching of these pairings is Brienne and Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman). Pod’s doggish loyalty grated on Brienne earlier this season, his devotion to her reminding Brienne of just how ridiculous most people find each other. But at a pause in their question, they end up revealing what are effectively their origin stories to each other. Pod, it turns out, is a disappointment in his own way, just as Brienne was in hers.
“I squired for a knight named Ser Lorimer during the War of the Five Kings. One night, he had a bit too much to drink and he was famished, so he borrowed a ham,” Pod confesses to Brienne. “He wasn’t a thief. He was drunk and hungry and he wasn’t thinking. I was drinking too. He gave me half the ham. The next morning, one of the guards saw him passed out under a wagon with the hambone in his hand. They hanged him that afternoon. They tied a noose for me, too, but Lord Tywin heard my family name was Payne, so he pardoned me, and sent me to King’s Landing to squire for his son.”
And show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who wrote “High Sparrow,” give Brienne’s relationship with Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) a shading that it doesn’t have in Martin’s novel. The painful story she tells to Podrick is a poisoned fairy tale. And while “Game of Thrones” has told plenty of those, the violence she reveals is emotional, rather than physical. It’s a testament to Christie’s acting that amidst so many real atrocities, Brienne’s painful memories still sting. She remembers:
When I was a girl, my father held a ball. I’m his only living child, so he wanted to make a good match for me. he invited dozens of young lords to Tarth. I didn’t want to go, but he dragged me to the ballroom. And it was wonderful. None of the boys noticed how mulish and tall I was. They shoved each other and threatened to duel when they thought it was their turn to dance and whispered in my ear how they wanted to marry me and take me back to their castles. My father smiled at me and I smiled at him. I’d never been so happy. ‘Til I saw a few of the boys snickering. And then they all started to laugh, they couldn’t keep the game going any longer. They were toying with me. Brienne the Beauty, they called me, a great joke. And I realized I was the ugliest girl alive. A great lumbering beast.I tried to run away, but Renly Baratheon took me in his arms. ‘Don’t let them see your tears,’ he told me. ‘They’re nasty little s—-, and nasty little s—- aren’t worth crying over.’ He danced with me and none of the other boys could say a word. Renly was the king’s brother, after all…Yes, Pod, he liked men. I’m not an idiot. He didn’t love me, he didn’t want me. He danced with me because he was kind and he didn’t want to see me hurt. He saved me from being a joke. From that day, until his last day. And I couldn’t save him in return…Nothing’s more hateful than failing to protect the one you love. One day I will avenge King Renly.
Moments like this one make the world of “Game of Thrones” worth investing in, rather than abandoning it as lost. As long as people like Brienne of Tarth live and breathe, justice seems possible and profoundly necessary. “I can’t knight you, but I can teach you how to fight,” Brienne tells Podrick. “I suppose that’s more important,” Pod tells her cheerfully. Whether either of them know it, she’s teaching him something else, too, that there is more than one way to be a man in Westeros, and that kindness can be as powerful a tool as a sword.
In Braavos, Arya (Maisie Williams) is learning a far more bittersweet lesson. After earning her admission to the House of Black and White last episode, Arya is bewildered by what she finds inside. Instead of being trained to execute the vengeance that has driven her so far and for so long, she’s set to sweeping floors. People come to the House and die in the shadow of its candles. She is harassed by a girl who seems to resent her presence.
Finally, she vents her frustration to Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha).“I am ready!” Arya insists. “For whatever you want. To be a faceless man. To be no one.” But she’s not, of course.“Whose sword is that? It belongs to Arya Stark,” Jaquen points out, kind but firm as he’s always been. “Arya Stark’s sword, Arya Stark’s clothes, Arya Stark’s stolen silver. A man wonders: how is it that ‘No One’ came to be surrounded by Arya Stark’s things?” To become what she wants to be, to be true to the person she once was and the family she mourns so deeply, Arya has to do the hardest thing of all: Grieve the other Starks and let them go.
Like Brienne and Podrick’s relatively tranquil conversation, the scene in which Arya sheds her old sin is one of the quietest and most effective in “High Sparrow.” She wraps up her clothes and sinks them in the Braavos harbor where she threw away her coin, her pain furrowing the corners of her eyes. “Game of Thrones” has brought prominence to a number of tremendous young actors, but Williams may be the best. She doesn’t have to say a word for us to fathom the magnitude of her loss, and the way she’s finally reckoning with the tally now, after episode after episode of focusing on her fantasies of revenge and her basic, desperate struggle to survive.
Arya buries her heart along with Needle in “High Sparrow,” while her sister hides her turbulent emotions behind a placid face as she rides back into Winterfell. But as Brienne and Podrick have learned, bearing your soul may make you vulnerable, but it can also remind you of what you’re fighting for and why you need to survive.