Winter is Coming. Winter is Here.

The encroaching threat of winter has been a go-to refrain for Game of Thrones whenever the show’s writers want to emphasize the doom on the horizon for all of Westeros and its citizens. “Winter is Coming” is a phrase that’s been uttered so many times that it’s practically become a running gag. “The Gift” might be the first episode to truly show why the threat of a multi-year winter is a frighting prospect simply from an environmental standpoint. Even if it wasn’t bringing an army of undead snow zombies with it, “The Gift” emphasizes that winter in Westeros has arrived and it’s making a significant impact. Winterfell looks like it’s suffering from daily blizzards and much is made out of the fact that Stannis’s army is trapped in the snow. After the disappointment of last week’s “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” and its controversial final scene, Game of Thrones needed a rebound episode to gain the confidence of its audience back. While it still perpetuates some of the show’s frustrating tropes, “The Gift” is a very good episode that lays the groundwork for the final stretch of the season.

The episode begins with Jon Snow setting off on his mission to secure the cooperation of the remaining Wildlings with Tormund Giantsbane, leaving Castle Black in the care of the perpetually grimacing Alliser Thorne. Jon’s departure is ominously framed, as the camera pans across the faces of various members of the Night’s Watch, who largely look extremely displeased with Jon’s decision. In particular, his personal steward Olly seems to glare at Jon with outright contempt.Jon feels that he’s doing the right thing, but leaving Castle Black with his men questioning him — and under the command of a man who outright hates him — certainly doesn’t bode well for Jon’s command when he returns.

As if that wasn’t enough, we also see that the influence of Jon’s inner circle of Crows is dwindling, as Maester Aemon sadly passes away. Thorne even takes the opportunity to tell Sam, Jon’s most trusted ally, that he’s “losing all his friends.” This observation that’s a bit too on-the-nose in spelling out the dire situation at Castle Black, but an effective one all the same. This all leads to a scene of attempted rape, as two random Crows assault Gilly. After the controversial rape scene of last week’s episode, dipping back into that well almost immediately feels incredibly lazy and shortsighted on the part of the show’s writers — at least at first. Sam’s attempted rescue of Gilly and his subsequent brutal beating actually turns into a clever inversion of what at first looks like yet another rape scene, as Sam is really the one who is assaulted. Thankfully, the timely arrival of Jon’s direwolf Ghost keeps things from getting a lot worse. The scene wisely uses the threat of rape in a thematically satisfying way, something that still can’t be said for Sansa and her ongoing misery at Winterfell.

There’s an overused trope in fantasy fiction called “the woman in the tower”, which is effectively a variation of the damsel in distress subplot. After last week’s episode robbed Sansa of her agency and dignity, she’s now progressed to literally being locked in a tower where her new husband abuses and sexually assaults her every night. Although the events in Winterfell remain tiresome and problematic for a number of reasons (which is baffling considering this was the show’s strongest subplot just a few weeks ago), there is at least an affective scene between Sansa and Theon, as the former desperately appeals to the latter to remember his identity. Even though this development leads to another betrayal from Theon, it’s still difficult to hate him because of how pathetic he is. The way the show is handling these two characters is incredibly frustrating right now, but if there’s a payoff in the final episodes, the more problematic elements could become justified in retrospect (that feels unlikely though).

While the events in the north represent the worst aspects of Game of Thrones right now, everything involving King’s Landing is an absolute homerun this week. The central scene between Lady Olenna and the High Sparrow is one of the single best verbal battles of the season; not only due to the sheer capabilities of veterans Diana Rigg and Jonathan Pryce, but also because of the complexity of the issues raised. Game of Thrones has always been a thematically-dense show, but season 5 hasn’t felt as intelligent as prior seasons in this regard. However, this scene emphasizes the thematic throughline that has been informing most the events of the season. So much time is spent examining the inner-workings of characters at the top of the power system that it is easy to forget about the impoverished masses that have had to endure the fallout of the petty squabbles of kings and queens. There a number of menacing undertones to this scene that seem to point to a reckoning coming for the power holders in Westeros, a tantalizing possibility that could jump-start the story going forward.

The Olenna/High Sparrow scene is the episode’s best, but every scene in King’s Landing is a winner this week. There’s an emotional scene between Tommen and Cersei, as the former vents his frustration of being unable to free Margaery from imprisonment. Cersei is a character who is very easy to despise, but her tearful embracing of her son reiterates that, despite being a vengeful, vindictive monster, Cersei reserves all of her love for her children and she is by no means just a two dimensional villain. That being said, seeing Cersei get a taste of her own medicine is still as satisfying as you would expect. The show has all but spelled out that Cersei’s use of the Sparrows would backfire and seeing her imprisoned is about as close to karma as it gets on Game of Thrones.

Despite a handful of unsatisfying scenes, “The Gift” largely feels like a welcome return to form for Game of Thrones. The number of smart, subtle decisions packed into this very busy episode help elevate the components that don’t really work (Winterfell, everything in Dorne). The actions of the Sparrows against the ruling caste in King’s Landing appears to be alluding to a reckoning on the horizon. It’s a go-to class warfare theme, but since Game of Thrones has concerned itself with the complexities of power and politics for so long, its fascinating watching it all come crumbling down. Judging by the template of every previous season, where the final stretch of episodes are loaded with action and shocking developments, “The Gift” is hopefully setting up for an exciting finale.

Other Events This Week:

-At this point, “The Dornish Adventures of Jaime and Bronn” officially blow. The scene between Jaime and Myrcella is too brief to accomplish anything and the extended prison scene between Bronn and the Sand Snakes continues to make the latter group less threatening with each episode. When the biggest revelation of the week is that one of them looks very nice naked, there is a problem.

-Getting Jorah and Tyrion to Meereen felt extremely rushed, but having Tyrion reveal himself to Daenerys in the final scene makes up for the accelerated pace. This is one character meet-up that’s long overdue.

-Maester Aemon’s death was handled well, but it just didn’t have the impact that it should have. Possibly because the show hadn’t foreshadowed his impending death very well; it just kind of happened.

-Seeing Ghost again only reiterate how disappointing it is that the direwolves aren’t featured more.

-“All rulers are either butchers or meat.” Daario Neharis hasn’t had much to do this season, but he manages to get in this fantastic line while in bed with Daenerys. From what Game of Thrones has shown us, his logic seems quite sound.

8
Excellent
Largely a return to form for this uneven 5th season.