Foreshadowing can be much harder to get right than most people give it credit for; too little and the plot development feels contrived and unconvincing but with too much, you lose the element of surprise and impact is ruined. A large chunk of this season so far has been build-up and foreshadowing and with just four episodes left to go, it’s about time that some of those threads begin to tie themselves together. Some threads have already begun to reap their rewards – Tyrion has finally met Daenerys, though her response is uncertain, while Stannis’ dilemma regarding Shireen has been revealed at long last. Other threads, however, continue to bubble and simmer – the increasingly negative atmosphere at the Wall continues to only get more toxic as some of the Night’s Watch revert to their old ways while Jorah’s possible redemption but definite death has also yet to really bear any harvest and in the North, Sansa’s story has been thrown under the bus, ostensibly in order to give Theon Greyjoy the salvation that he really hasn’t earned. In each of these instances however, the decisions that the show made earlier on are beginning come back to haunt them and while the show is able to make a pretty spectacle of it on the surface, anything more than a cursory glance will expose the fact that a lot of the characters’ decisions are uncharacteristic and inconsistent.
We open the episode with Jon departing the Wall. This little field-trip to Hardhome is exactly as bad an idea as Ser Alliser, the ever pleasant new man-in-charge, would have us think – the reception Jon can expect is hostile at best, downright murderous at worst. Still, of the storylines we will be discussing today, Jon’s is perhaps the best justified. His sympathies towards the Free Folk have been well noted by his peers and subordinates and while there is really no reason for him to go there himself beyond what the modified plot demands, it’s as good a way as any to illustrate that Jon’s ideals cannot override the political need to make a decision that his troops can at least stomach. The result is that Sam is left all alone at the Wall, now more so than ever with the death of the venerable Maester Aemon. Peter Vaughan has been an absolutely amazing Maester Aemon – conveying both the character’s fragility and his strength very well. His final words, “Egg, I dreamed I was old”, was well delivered and although the emotional impact of those words were a little lessened by the audience not technically knowing who Aegon V was, it was nevertheless a great send off for a great character. All of this, it seems was to set Sam’s journey to the Citadel up but you have to wonder if the catalyst that actually gets him going will be the something that makes the situation on the Wall absolutely untenable for him.
It is time to finally have the discussion about Sansa Stark, her storyline and the many things that are wrong with it. I deferred this discussion to this week not just because I didn’t want my knee-jerk reaction to dictate the tone of this discussion, but also because I honestly felt that how Sansa and, in a wider sense, the show, responded to the previous episode’s final scene would be a better metric by which to gauge that scene’s value. I believed, for example, that if Sansa retained some shred of dignity and iron beneath her infuriatingly battered exterior, then I could at least be generous in saying that the scene established Sansa’s progress as a character. I was mistaken, however. To the show’s credit, and I doubt I’ll be repeating that phrase much from this point out, Sansa did keep her dignity and she does have a spine enough to resist Ramsay and her truly terrifying circumstances, but I was wrong in thinking that that would make it all better. I will be the first to admit that a large part of my response to Sansa’s second marriage and its subsequent consummation is emotional. I am an unashamedly huge fan of the novels and naturally, I love a lot of its characters. Sansa isn’t really a character I feel that strongly about, but I find her sympathetic enough that watching her character go through that was painful. Of course, that was the point – we’re supposed to be furious, we’re supposed to detest Ramsay. The trouble I have with that is that comes entirely at Sansa’s expense. Remember when, a few episodes ago, she strode into Winterfell, presumably ready to kick ass and take names? She was back home and this time things were supposed to be different. She had resolved to take matters into her own hands instead of just being an observer to her own misery. Do you see how utterly absurd and ridiculous that all seems now? Where she once seemed to be in a position of power, she now, retroactively, just looks like a clueless little girl who thought she had a way in her own fate. It might be a little extreme to say it reverses her entire character development, but it’s certainly fair to say that it stops it dead in its tracks, shoots both its legs and freezes it in carbonite. What makes it worse, and yes, that is actually possible, is what it seems this was all for – Theon’s redemption. Theon needs a way out apparently, he needs a way to redeem his betrayal of the Stark, for reasons that don’t feel quite as organic in the show as they did in the novels. The only way of Theon to swoop in and save the day is for Sansa to be unable to do so herself, or at least, unable to do so entirely by herself. Yet, even as the show gives you hope that this is the very plot they have had in mind all this while, they undo it by keeping Theon frustratingly loyal to Ramsay. Theon’s broken state of mind is all too real to question now, of course, but from a the perspective of the bigger picture, what exactly did his latest betrayal of a Stark who he clearly cares about, achieve?
Not too far from Winterfell, a clusterfuck is brewing. Stannis thinks that this clusterfuck in question is the heavy snowstorm surrounding him, the same snow storm that is somehow able to convince mercenary troops that they have a better chance of survival in the Northern wilderness, in the middle of a blizzard, than with the highly organized army that’s about to assault a castle full of food and shelter, but in fact, that’s just the distraction. One might even think that the potential ruinous combination of Brienne, Stannis and Ramsay all lurking so near one another, is the clusterfuck in question but it is not (ok, it is but not the biggest one). The true clusterfuck is the plot. The potential sacrifice of Shireen Baratheon has always been something I both hated yet instinctively knew to be all too likely. Mel’s insistence that the Princess be brought along started it and watching father and daughter bond sealed the deal. On one level, Stannis’ decision is one that will question the entire core of his character – under it all, it he exactly as cold and calculating as everyone in his entire kingdom seems to think? Or is he as good and kind a man as some of the more delusional elements of the fandom want to think? The answer is probably somewhere in between, which still means that things aren’t looking too good for the princess. One thing is for sure; if Stannis goes through with the sacrifice, there will be no redeeming his characters in the eyes of the audience, ever.
On the topic of redemption and forgiveness, we have one Jorah Mormont, a man who is quickly realizing that everything he has achieved in his life has been pretty much for nothing. The Greyscale time bomb is ticking but it’s doing nothing to hamper Jorah’s ferocity as he handily defeats all the pitiful challengers in Dany’s first gladiatorial games. It is both extremely annoying and extremely unsurprising for Daenerys’ reaction to his appearance, right after she lost some of her most trusted advisors, to be one of instant mistrust. It’s not an entirely unreasonable reaction, to be sure, but it is one that just seems designed to create low drama more than serve a narrative purpose. I am still not entirely sure just what Jorah planned for Dany to do with Tyrion. Surely he wasn’t suggesting that by paying Dany in the currency she allegedly despised the most, human flesh (though apparently she doesn’t enforce this diet on her children), he would be forgiven and be allowed to return to the fold? Just what value would Tyrion have to Dany as an item of revenge? These questions deserve no answer, the show insists, because regardless of the answer, the job is done; Tyrion has reached Dany, with 100% less pig jousting, dog riding, female dwarves, and rampant human rights abuses! The conversation between these three characters ought to be absolutely fascinating but it does make you wonder how the final episode of the season is going to turn out. Similar questions ought to be asked in Dorne, where the plot continues to be as thin and easily discarded as Obara Sand’s clothes. There hasn’t been a whole lot of progress on that front and it’s not surprise why – there isn’t anywhere to progress to. Unless the show’s writers have been holding back in a very major way, Jaime’s adventures in Dorne might be one of the dullest stories in the show’s five season run.
Fortunately, his sister is faring much better, or rather, her story is. Lena Headey probably spends a few hours a day practising her smug look – nothing less would explain who perfectly she conveyed Cersei’s barely concealed glee at watching her would-be rival (surely Margaery wasn’t around long enough to really count as a proper rival?) put in her place. Margaery in the show isn’t quite as likable as her novel counterpart – Margaery here is a much more active schemer and is unambiguously aware of a number of things that she isn’t supposed to be aware of. Yet, as dominant a force as Headey’s Cersei was in this episode, by the episode’s end, she was totally upstaged by the enormity of Jonathan Pryce. Pryce captures the heart of one of Varys’ lines – “There is no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man”. Pryce’s High Sparrow doesn’t even have a name yet, but it was unnerving to watch him get the better of the various nobles around him, including the previously undefeated Queen of Thrones. The High Sparrow demonstrates an absolute commitment to religion that has long since surpassed the logical or even the fanatic and as a consequence, he is incapable of fear, instantly rendering him uncontrollable to the likes of either Cersei or Olenna Tyrell. Of course, while Littlefinger still draws breath, it would be impossible to imagine him not sticking his hand in and meddling around. His meddling bears instant fruit but with three episodes still left to go, it’s anyone’s guess just where the royalty in King’s Landing will end up.