You Can’t Escape Your Past
Looking back at Game of Throne‘s earlier seasons, it’s clear that one of the primary concerns of adapting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire into an HBO series was staying as faithful as possible to the author’s text. The first season in particular is about as close a straight adaptation of the source material as you could ask for. Sure, some changes were made to better fit the television format, but that season stayed very close to the arc of Martin’s first book. However, as more and more small changes were made, Game of Thrones naturally deviated from Martin’s novels out of necessity. While these decisions were surely made at a much earlier date, “High Sparrow”, the third episode of season 5, arguably marks the delineation where showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff make it abundantly clear that they are now using Martin’s text as a general guideline; the notion of straight adaptation no longer applies. And while some ardent fans of Martin’s novels are surely up in arms over the drastic changes introduced in “High Sparrow”, the show is arguably better off for having made them.
“High Sparrow” presents the biggest, most significant change that Weiss and Benioff have made yet by having Sansa Stark not only return to her home of Winterfell, but do so under the guise of marrying Roose Bolton’s psychotic bastard (well, not anymore) Ramsay — the same Boltons who, coincidentally, murdered her brother Robb, her mother Catelyn, and now control her kingdom. It would take an entire essay to unpack all of the meaning this development introduces, but there are a few key points that have to be discussed. For one, having Sansa directly involved with the struggles in the North signifies her departure as being a character who merely observes and has things done to her; she’s taking direct action for once and this makes her inherently more interesting as a character (Littlefinger’s meta-textual speech telling Sansa to stop being a bystander and to stop running is a clever way of addressing this change).
Putting Sansa in Winterfell is without a doubt the most significant change the show has made, and yet it’s difficult to know how far it differs from Martin’s vision because, for all intents and purposes, having Sansa in Winterfell could very well be part of the plot of the author’s next book, The Winds of Winter. That being said, as of right now Sansa’s story is the most exciting on the show because it offers uncharted territory (and that’s not even getting into the exciting prospect of having Littlefinger in Winterfell now as well, which will surely have huge payoffs down the line).
While the definite central storyline this week is Sansa’s, the other main characters weren’t left in the dark in terms of plot developments. While Sansa is poised to return the Stark name to some semblance of importance again (even if it’s tied directly to the House that destroyed that name to begin with), her siblings are wrestling with the necessity of leaving their identities as Starks behind. Arya, still determined to become a part of the Faceless Men, is forced to jettison her identity as Arya Stark. In an emotional scene, Arya tosses away all of her possessions tied to her identity and past…except for one. By hiding her most cherished possession, the sword Jon Snow gave her, Arya is making it clear that she can never truly leave her past behind. As the old servant encouragingly tells Sansa in Winterfell, “The North remembers”, and no matter how much she distances herself or changes, Arya can never forget the crimes against her family or her thirst for vengeance.
Similar to Arya, Jon has to make a significant decision regarding his ties to the Stark name. He refuses Stannis’s offer of making him a Stark and the ruler of the North in favor of his duty to the Night’s Watch, but the always wise Davos Seaworth plants a seed of doubt in Jon’s mind. Jon’s duty may be to the Night’s Watch, but the Night’s Watch’s duty is to the realm. With the Boltons threatening both the realm and Jon’s rightful home and people, Jon’s conflicting duties to his past and present lives may be more intertwined than he thinks. Taking things one step further is Jon’s decision later in the episode to execute the insubordinate Janos Slynt, in the exact manner his father Ned Stark would have. Much like Arya, Jon cannot fully leave his Stark identity behind, and that will undoubtedly lead to further conflicts down the line.
The title of this week’s episode is “High Sparrow”, referring to the leader of the pious religious group introduced in “The Wars to Come”. Cersei, tasked with convicting the High Sparrow in light of perceived affronts to the High Septon (the official religious leader in King’s Landing), instead decides to ally herself with the Sparrows. In light of an earlier scene that sees the populace singing the praises of the caring new Queen Margaery, Cersei seems to be recognizing the need for more displays of humanity in her public persona, instead of her usual all-consuming cruelty. To this end, the other main plot this week that has to be discussed is the vying of Cersei and Margaery for control over King Tommen. Cersei is fighting a losing game, made all the more clear when her beloved son practically tells her she’d be better off if she moved back to Casterly Rock, the Lannister seat of power. It’s a crushing prospect for Cersei, who is slowly losing her power, and her only remaining son, to the younger, well-liked Margaery, but as has been seen repeatedly on this show, Cersei can never be counted out as a power player (and the terrifying experiment in Qyburn’s lab of horrors is surely just one of her trump cards waiting to be played).
“High Sparrow” is a fantastic episode of Game of Thrones that, while still a “table-setting” episode by design, introduces fundamental shifts in the show’s plot that mark it as an episode of great significance. The A Song of Ice and Fire books and the Game of Thrones series are now at the point where they are very different beasts, but that’s honestly the best thing that could have happened in this unique situation. Martin’s novels no longer offer viewers a map of where the show is headed, but by the same token, Game of Thrones is now different enough from Martin’s vision that the author’s remaining books will not be wholly spoiled when the show inevitably pulls ahead in the very near future. By charting their own course, Weiss and Benioff are not only strengthening the storytelling of their show, but helping Martin out by allowing the author to continue telling the story he started.
Other Events This Week:
-Tyrion being taken hostage by the exiled Jorah Mormont at the end of the episode injects some much-needed excitement into Tyrion’s plot this season. Jorah tells Tyrion that he’s taking him to “the Queen”, which is a deliberately vague cliffhanger.
-Margaery gets the best dialogue this week, getting in at least 5 verbal jabs at her fiery mother-in-law. Making suggestive remarks about Tommen’s prowess in bed in front of her new husband’s mother is probably one of the best insults anyone has thrown Cersei’s way since Tyrion’s weekly comebacks in season 2.
-Theon deliberately avoids Sansa’s gaze in Winterfell. It’s difficult to know where Theon’s allegiances lie these days since Ramsay broke his mind, but it seems only a matter of time before this conflict boils over.
-It doesn’t get talked about enough, but the visual direction on this show is immaculate. Episode director Mark Mylod and cinematographer Aneete Haellmigk put in great work here, especially the wonderful transition from the flayed human carcass in Winterfell’s courtyard to the cooked feast in the dining hall. The execution scene is also noticeably well-shot.