After last week’s stellar episode, “High Sparrow,” maybe it was inevitable that I would feel a bit disappointed by “The Sons of the Harpy,” which has to do a lot of work setting up events to come, and ends in a long and poorly-choreographed fight scene. But even a slightly down episode of “Game of Thrones” is still an hour that we get to spend in Westeros and Essos, and another opportunity for the show to turn in a strong consideration of a theme, in this case, all the ways you can make terrible mistakes while trying to be a good parent. And given how much the fifth season of “Game of Thrones” has been defined by its diversions from George R.R. Martin’s books, “The Sons of the Harpy” does a nice job of showing us just how those alterations may start to pay off.
Let’s start with Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) on the boat to Dorne, which is proof that changes to Martin’s books will bring rewards not just in streamlined plots, but in character development and nuance. Bronn, whose brain is as sharp as his weapons, has figured out not only that Jaime let Tyrion go, but that they’re on a quest to rescue Jaime’s daughter, not his niece. The sellsword-turned-knight broaches the subject subtly, and doesn’t push in a conversation about how each man would like to die. “In my own keep, drinking my own wine, watching my sons grovel for my fortune,” Bronn tells Jaime. “How disappointing,” Jaime tells him. “I thought you’d have something more exciting planned.” “I’ve had an exciting life,” Bronn tells him, in a case of serious understatement. “I want my death to be boring. How would you go?” “In the arms of the woman I love,” Jaime admits. “She want the same thing?” Bronn asks him.
He’s seized on the thing that means that Jaime will never be a good father to his children, and why their mission to Dorne has a suicidal quality to it, beyond the fact that it’s being led by “a one-handed man who happens to be one of the most recognizable faces in Westeros.” Jaime could never claim his children, but even if he could, his affection from them stems only from their relationship to Cersei. He’s not particularly going to Dorne to rescue Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) because he loves her. He’s going because it’s a desperate attempt to console an increasingly inconsolable and unhinged Cersei. And that means he’s willing to take awful and potentially unwise risks.
Abdicating responsibility for parenting their children to Cersei is a dangerous decision, too, as we see back in King’s Landing. Cersei is consolidating her power by sending members of the small council off on various distracting errands and arming the Faith Militant, an old religious law enforcement order, to curry favor with the new High Septon (Jonathan Pryce). That latter decision sets off a wave of violent enforcement of the Faith’s ideals across the city, including the killings and arrests of gay men, including the imprisonment of the queen’s brother, Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones).
In her jealousy over the influence Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) is exerting on her new husband, Cersei’s son Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), Cersei uses the faith to humiliate the teenager, too. “Can’t allow fanatics to arrest the queen’s brother, no matter his perversions,” Cersei tells her son with poisonous sweetness, after Tommen comes to her to complain about Loras’ arrest at Margaery’s behest. “You’re the king. I’m sure if you speak to the High Sparrow, he’ll release the poor boy.” But when Tommen goes to make the request, he’s turned back by the Faith Militant. Cersei has set her son up to be humiliated. It’s a dreadful thing for a parent to do to a child, and even worse because Cersei’s doing it out of revenge and spite: the only lesson she wants to teach him is that he should be more loyal to her than to his wife. That’s not love; it’s a kind of abuse.
And it’s a stark contrast with Ellaria Sand’s (Indira Varma) move to rally her daughters to avenge their father Oberyn in Dorne. It’s also a potentially reckless move, but at least she lets the Sand Snakes know the risks, saying, “You must choose. Doran’s way and peace, or my way and war.” And rather than tearing her daughters down, the story Obara Sand (Keisha Castle-Hughes) tells makes it clear that her parents always built up their children’s sense of competence and strength.
“When I was a child, Oberyn came to take me to court,” Obara recalls. “I’d never seen this man and yet he called himself my father. My mother wept, said I was too young, and a girl. Oberyn tossed his spear at my feet and said, girl or boy, we fight our battles, but the Gods let us choose our weapons. My father pointed to the spear, and then to my mother’s tears.” She pauses to throw that spear through the head of the captain who brought Jaime and Bronn to Dorne with deadly accuracy, before concluding: “I made my choice long ago.”
And North at the Wall, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), a man defined by his unyielding nature, reveals himself to be a tender father.“Are you lonely?” he asks Shireen (Kerry Ingram), when the little girl comes to visit him in his chambers. “Just bored,” Shireen tells him. “My father used to tell me that boredom indicates a lack of inner resources,” Stannis tells her in a very funny bit of stiffness that also hints at the way he and his late brothers Robert and Renly must have grown up. But when Shireen confesses that she’s glad she got to come over her increasingly fanatical mother’s objections, Stannis shows he can break free from his father’s example.
“When you were an infant, a Dornish trader landed on Dragonstone. His goods were junk except for one wooden doll. He’d even sewn a dress on it in the colors of our house. No doubt he’d heard of your birth and heard new fathers were easy targets,” Stannis reminisces. “I still remember how you smiled when I put that doll in your cradle. How you pressed it to your cheek. By the time we’d burnt the doll it was too late. I was told you would die, or worse, the Greyscale would go slow, let you grow just enough to know the world before taking it away from you. Everyone advised me tos end you to the ruins of Valyria, to live out your short life with the stone men before the sickness spread through the castle. I told them all to go to hell. I called in every Maester on this side of the world, every healer, every apothecary. They stopped the disease and saved your life. Because you do not belong across the world with the bloody stone men. You are the Princess Shireen of House Baratheon. And you are my daughter.”
Crying, Shireen wraps her arms around her father. And after a pause, Stannis holds her as well. It’s a quiet testament to the idea that parents need their children, too. Cersei wants to crush her children into obedience, while Stannis is a wise enough man to let himself be changed, if not quite swayed, by his daughter. Shireen keeps alive the part of his heart that’s in danger of freezing, and not just from the cold at the Wall.
And in Meereen, Dany (Emilia Clarke) is already estranged from her firey children, and as the battle at the end of “The Sons of the Harpy” suggests, she may be about to lose Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) too. As a matter of plot economy, this might be a smart move: In the novels, Barristan is left to slog through the politics of Slaver’s Bay after Dany flees Meereen in a storyline that seems increasingly bogged down and unlikely to be perspective. And from a character perspective, this opens up interesting territory for Dany. For as much as she’s lived her life in exile, she’s always had a brother, a father surrogate, or a husband. Now in Meereen, she’s as alone as she’s ever been. If parents can exert dangerous influence in “Game of Thrones,” we know from Catelyn Stark’s example that there’s no one more desolate or desperate than a person who’s lost both their parents and their children.