Game of Thrones Review: "The High Sparrow"

(Episode 5.03)

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<i>Game of Thrones</i> Review: "The High Sparrow"

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.



We have much to discuss.

Things are getting seriously intense this season, and I think it’s elevating Game of Thrones to new levels. I don’t know about you, but I can almost feel the show building to a climax even though we’re still two seasons and change away from the conclusion—27 episodes, to be exact. But every interaction, every plot development, and every piece of seemingly innocuous dialogue, seems fraught with danger and meaning.

Let’s start with Cersei and Margaery. On the surface, this is just some excellent catty back-and-forth between two very smart and very powerful women, one of whom is a little bit smarter and a little bit more in control of her emotions, and who also finds herself on the ascent. Which gives her an advantage, at least on the surface, but holy shit, Josh, how dangerous does that make Cersei? The only thing more Cersei Lannister with power is Cersei Lannister backed into a corner, faced with losing her power. When she walked away from Margaery’s little gathering, her look of fury made me sweat. It surely didn’t help that the content of Margaery’s passive-aggressive banter was basically “you’re old, and I’m banging your last surviving son,” but I hope she knows what she’s doing, because Cersei had fire and murder in her eyes.

The Tyrells are clever people, but I find myself worrying that they’re a little too sane to truly understand what they’re messing with in the Lannisters. Then again, I just remembered that Olenna had a hand in poisoning Joffrey, so it’s not like they’re naifs either. It all seems like it’s building to some really ugly business, and as you mentioned last week, this is super heightened for me because the show is on the verge of outpacing the books. I don’t know what’s coming! My smugness is gone, and RANK FEAR has replaced it. I’m constantly worried about the next Red Wedding.

Next, we check in with our old pal Ramsay Bolton, who is still a weird psychopath, but who now is forced to deal with the realities of political life. Roose, his father, is trying to teach him about these subtleties—there are times when the answer to a vexing problem isn’t “peel the dude’s skin off”—but for all the sick intelligence Ramsay displays in torturing people, he’s a bit rigid when it comes to the concessions and negotiations that come with real power. (Speaking of rigid and fluid, we’ve probably beaten that horse to death, but the good news is that our own Sarah Lawrence is coming out with a matrix identifying all of the major characters in the good/evil/fluid/rigid matrix, so get psyched for that later this week.) But Josh, just when I thought we were going to watch Ramsay cut out Reek’s eyeballs, or something, it got even worse: BAELISH IS MAKING SANSA MARRY HIM.

What? Can you imagine anything worse? This was not in the book, Josh, or at least not yet. Even George R.R. Martin wouldn’t subject us to that kind of awful union. In the book (SPOILER ALERT, I GUESS), Ramsay marries an Arya Stark impostor who he thinks is the real item, while Arya is actually training to become a deadly assassin. SPOILER ALERT AGAIN, I GUESS: He is not nice to the fake Arya. We don’t get to see much of Ramsay and Sansa, but I can’t take any kind of his weird torture to her, Josh. I hope that’s not where this is going. Brienne and Pod need to stage their abduction, and NOW. Maybe Sansa and Pod can get together, and she can enjoy the, um…pleasures that the prostitutes of Westeros already know.

We talked last year about how much we both loved the scenes with Arya and the Hound, and now we have a sort of gender-flipped version of that with Pod and Brienne. And you know what? I’m still loving it. Not quite as much, because no odd couple is quite as great as Arya and Clegane, but they’re still doing it for me. We even get a bit of Brienne backstory with the mean boys at the ball who sealed her fate as a warrior for all time.

And what about the rest of the Starks? Jon refuses to join Stannis in his plot to re-take Winterfell, remaining loyal to his new position with the Night’s Watch. There’s a special irony here when Stannis, a fairly rigid man himself, actually calls Jon out for resembling his father in stubbornness and honor—”it wasn’t a compliment…honor got your father killed.” As much of a tight-ass as Stannis is, Josh, have we been underestimating his fluidity? I mean, he is willing to dance with the Lord of the Light to get what he wants…maybe the guy is smarter than we thought. Even Ser Davos calls him a “complicated man.” He also manages to crack Jon Snow’s defenses, at least a little, and plant the seeds of a possible alliance with Stannis to rid the north of the Boltons. But if he truly believes Jon is rigid, he underestimates him—in the most brilliant political move of his life, he separated the dangerous alliance of Aliser Thorne and Janos Slynt by giving high honors to the former—who, despite his crusty nature, is a brave soldier and has the respect of his men—and shunting aside the latter, who is a proven coward.

When Slynt protests, Thorne is too smart to stand by his side, and Slynt paints himself into a corner. His impudence gives Jon the opportunity he needs to assert his authority in the most dramatic way possible—by beheading him in front of the entire Night’s Watch. It seems, on the surface, out of character for Jon, but it shows the latent intelligence that has been present in him all along. I found this scene incredibly thrilling to watch, because we saw Jon exceed the uniform thinking of his father, and display the qualities he’ll need in the complicated times to come. It was like watching a superhero discover his powers.

And Arya…poor Arya is trying to find her way around the suicide temple, washing dead bodies and getting riddles in response to every question—at least when she’s not getting slapped. But I’ve rambled on far too long, and we haven’t even gotten to the zealots or Tyrion’s kidnapping, so I’ll kick it your way—was this episode as good as I think it was?




It was indeed a fantastic episode, especially in the north. I don’t think his decision to withhold mercy to a blubbering Janos Slynt is out of character for him. In one of the very first scenes of the series, Jon’s father Ned Stark cuts the head off a more deserving man of the Night’s Watch than Slynt—a deserter trying to warn his family of the white walkers. Jon was there to learn the lesson that you do the executions yourself, even telling Bran Stark, “Don’t look away. Your father will know if you do.” He takes no pleasure in it, but he knows it needs to be done. I love your superhero comparison, because he is indeed turning into the best leader of any sort in the Game of Thrones universe now that Daenerys ordered an execution when mercy was actually a better choice.

One thing that made this episode race along so engagingly was the absence of the Dragon Mother. Her story has bogged down in Mereen, and I’m glad to see the writers don’t feel like every episode needs the real Kaleesi. The Volantin prostitute variety will do.

But let’s talk some more about Arya becoming “no one” in Braavos. She tosses all her belongings in the canal, only holding back when it came time to let go of Needle. That sword has been the only friend she’s had since parting ways with Hot Pie and Gendry. Her determination to become an assassin is absolute, even if that means casting off all vestiges of Arya and scrubbing down dead men’s bodies.

And we got to meet the High Sparrow, played by the excellent Jonathan Pryce. You mentioned worrying about Margery not understanding the depths of the Lannisters’ corruption. How much more so is Cersei underestimating the integrity of the Sparrows. She can’t fathom a player in the game of thrones who won’t be tempted by power, and so she allies herself with someone she’ll never understand. I can’t wait to see how this plays out, and I’m delighted to watch Pryce bring a totally new kind of character to life in the series.

But yes, I was completely with you watching Sansa approach the Boltons’ castle, thinking, “Wait! This isn’t in the books! Where’s fake Arya?” The writers skilled a pretty major development with Theon and the Boltons’ struggle for the North. I was a little disappointed not to see that, but I didn’t have time to mope as I became terrified for Sansa. Who would have thought she could have done worse than King Joffrey. She’s now been betrothed to the two biggest psychopaths in all of Westeros. If things don’t work out, there’s always Walder Frey. Or maybe Cersei’s disgraced Maester, Qyburn.

So let’s pour one out for the dynamic duo of Tyrion and Varys now that they’ve been forced to part ways. The Imp is now the captive of Jorah, a much duller traveling companion. How would you rate the pairings we have left?




Solid question. I think Tyrion and Jorah might be my potential favorite, just because Jorah is such a humorless fanatic, and you can count on Tyrion to aggravate him at every moment. So let’s put them at no. 1 and see what we have left:

1. Tyrion and Jorah

2. Baelish and Roose Bolton – I know this partnership won’t last long, but their scene together on the battlements was terrific. They are cut from the same cloth, both hugely ambitious and willing to take great calculated risks and sacrifice almost anyone to their cause. Their is a weird sort of bond between them that stems from their total mistrust in one another. They can never be true allies, but Bolton is more of a kindred spirit to Baelish than Varys ever was—the eunuch actually cared about people other than himself.

3. Jon and Samwell Tarly – I think Jon’s advancement is partly down to the influence of Sam, who has never had Jon’s physical gifts and can therefore provide a perspective from weakness—how to outmaneuver your enemy even without strength on your side. Plus, they have real affection for one another, and as such are some of the last loyal people in Westeros.

4. Arya and Jaqen H’ghar – At this point, I feel like Arya could be paired with anyone, and it would still be awesome. There’s a reason she won our badass bracket. She’s a little bit crazy, but mostly just fierce and resilient, and watching her around more worldly, experienced people is always a blast.

5. The High Sparrow and Cersei – Terrific point by you. Cersei may be dangerous, but she is extremely limited in her understanding of the world. She’s one of those monomaniacal people who can’t fathom that another person might have different motivations besides power and money. We both know what’s coming, so we’ll say no more.

6. Grey Worm and Missandei – Is it too crass to say I hope they find a way to have sex? Too bad, already said it. (Also, apparently MTV already did a thorough breakdown on whether or not this was possible.)

7. Bran and the Tree Dude – Haven’t seen them this season yet. I’m not super upset, but I am interested to see how this plays out.

8. Ned Stark and Robb Stark – Together in the afterlife, going “dammit, I really hate the Lannisters.” And then Tywin strolls in, looks around, sees them, and is like, “I’ll find another place to hang. PS if it makes you feel any better, my son killed me. And not even the good son.” And he leaves to try to find Shae, but she’s married to Khal Drogo now.

9. Lady Stoneheart and Fake Arya – Together on the set of Game of Thrones, behind the camera, and they keep bothering Benioff and Weiss to ask if it’s their scene yet.

10. Daenerys and Whoever – BORING. And let’s be honest—it’s been boring for a little while. They manage to punctuate the boredom with a few huge moments that almost seem to redeem her storyline, but in the end it’s back to the same stagnant narrative of waiting, waiting, waiting for someone we care about to actually encounter Daenerys.


328. Stannis & Melisandre


1,375. Ramsay and Sansa


2,467. Your hypothetical future marriage of Sansa and Walder Frey. Because you know those creeps at HBO are going to force the directors to include a sex scene.

Okay, now that we’ve established those rankings, I have a question for you: What’s going to happen when Sansa first sees and recognizes Theon? More uncharted not-in-the-book territory! Also, speaking of pairs, give me your top five “I can’t friggin’ wait until these two people meet” scenarios. My obvious no. 1 is Daenerys and Tyrion.




Let’s assume for a minute that the books will now follow the general plot of the TV show in that Sansa is eventually going to encounter the Boltons and Theon. In the books, the Theon she’ll meet will be a very different creature than the still-cowed Reek we see on screen.

But either way, Lord Baelish’s speech seems to have been a turning point to Sansa. More than anyone, she’s been nothing more than a pawn in this game so far, and it may be time for her to take action. We’ll soon see if there’s a little bit of Arya in the older sister, and if so, Theon may be the first name she recites. If Reek is scared of Ramsay, he may have as much to fear from Sansa.

I agree with your list of current pairs except that I’d add Samwell Tarly and Gilly. I love seeing poor Sam stumble around the woman he loves in a constant state of blushing.

As far as the encounters I can’t wait to see:

5. Theon and Sansa. He’s a pitiful creature, but will she take pity on the man she thinks killed her brothers? Or will she find out they’re still alive?

4. Drogon and King’s Landing. A good one-sided battle.

3. Bran and any of his siblings. Everyone assumes the youngest Stark boys are dead. I’m looking forward to the family reunion.

2. Tyrion and Daenerys. The meeting may eventually happen under very different circumstances than Varys intended. It’s one thing to seek out an audience with the Queen. It’s another to be delivered as a prisoner when your family slaughtered hers. Tyrion is going to need that golden Lannister tongue to keep him alive once again.

1. Arya and a) Cersei Lannister, b) Melisandre c) the reanimated Mountain. There aren’t many names left on Arya’s kill list; others keep doing her work before her. But those are three I hope she gets to cross off personally.

Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.



Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.

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