A review of “Sons of the Harpy,” the fourth episode of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones”
by Miodrag Zarković
Rest assured, dear reader, this review will eventually deal with the dualistic nature of TV Littlefinger: part human, part Wikipedia. But first, let’s address other issues.
One thing David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the showrunners of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” can’t ever be accused of, is subtle writing. For the previous 43 episodes, they never bothered with it. So, when in “Sons of the Harpy,” the fourth episode of the fifth season, a coup d’état that was happening right in front of our eyes was never mentioned by name, it’s probably not because of Benioff and Weiss’ intention to keep the recognition under the radar—but because they actually don’t know what the hell they’ve written.
A little background: in the George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series that they say the show is based on, we encounter the Faith Militant. Introduced in “A Feast for Crows,” it serves as the military arm of the Faith of the Seven. And it means exactly what it’s supposed to mean: the Faith Militant deals with transgressions against the religion, but not with matters that concern royal authority. That is why the High Septon arrests Margaery Tyrell, her cousins, Osney Kettleblack, and finally Cersei Lannister—all on charges related to the Faith. For example, both Cersei and Margaery are accused of extramarital fornication, which concerns the Faith only because both of them swore marital vows precisely in the sept. For comparison, they could never charge Ramsay Bolton or Jeyne Poole for the same crimes, regardless of whom they were having affairs with, simply because Ramsay and Jeyne didn’t swear anything to the Faith of the Seven. Ramsay and Jeyne never committed themselves under the jurisdiction of the religious institution that is headed by the High Septon.
It would also mean that one’s business manners are also of no concern for the Faith. Septons may preach against the greed and corruption, but that’s it. They don’t get to punish those who immorally took financial advantage of the social turmoil. Sexual appetites are also off-limits, at least until the person swears the sacred vows that he/she will be loyal to their spouse. In short, the Faith Militant and the Faith itself have no jurisdiction in matters the royal legal system deals with or in social customs and traditions. As another example, they’d absolutely have no business in a possible trial Tyrion could face for patricide.
That’s the books. The show has, of course, taken a different approach, and ended up with an unspoken coup.
In “Sons of the Harpy,” the Faith Militant is seen attacking what is probably a marketplace and destroying everything they deem excessive or sinful (one would assume it was ale that was spilled over those stairs). They also stormed a brothel and physically molested prostitutes and customers both, and launched a campaign against homosexuals, the arrest of Ser Loras Tyrell included. Practically all of these actions signal that a sudden overthrow of the entire political system the Seven Kingdoms rest on already happened. To clear any possible doubt, the show sealed the coup with the scene in which King Tommen is denied a meeting with the new High Septon while His Holiness is praying. Yes, royal authority is no more in King’s Landing. There’s a new ruler in town, and by extension in the realm. Thus, the War of the Five Kings was effectively won by the sixth one, who’s not even a king, by the way, but a barefoot humanitarian known as High Sparrow.
(Speaking of his bare feet, the High Sparrow didn’t burn his shoes, or throw them to the sea. As he himself explained in the previous episode, he actually gave them to someone who needed them more. So, why are his disciples acting in a completely opposite manner in this episode? Why are they destroying instead of distributing the excess?)
And yet, besides Margaery Tyrell, nobody seems disturbed by the coup. Not that she is concerned with the legal consequences of the Faith Militant’s actions, of course; she worries about her brother exclusively, but at least she’s visibly bothered. She, and no one else.
When the Anne Boleyn of TV Westeros is the only individual acting somewhat reasonably, you know Benioff and Weiss managed to outdo themselves once again in terms of incompetent storytelling.
After four and a half years of carefully watching their work on GOT, one can spot with ease the patterns and characteristics of Benioff and Weiss’ writing. Based on that, it is beyond doubt that the two of them have absolutely no idea about the consequences the actions of their Faith Militant would inevitably have in any social circumstances that can be considered realistic and logical. The thought that what they actually wrote is effectively a coup never crossed their minds. All their expertise on Martin’s world and legality starts and ends with the pure fact that HBO paid dearly for their right to mess with it big time.
However, that’s not to say the Faith Militant in the show didn’t serve its purpose. “Cersei, meanwhile, sees the High Sparrow as a weapon in her feud with Margaery, yet—as has happened a time or twelve in our own world’s history—doesn’t seem to understand how difficult it is to control religious extremists once you’ve armed them,” writes Alan Sepinwall in his review on HitFix. James Hibberd, reviewing the episode for Entertainment Weekly, ironically concludes this about Cersei’s move: “It’s an excellent idea, because if history has taught us anything, it’s that nothing bad can come from giving religious fanatics weapons.”
Similar stances can be found in any number of this week’s reviews. And it very much was the goal of Benioff and Weiss: to feed the liberal, politically-correct media with a desired antagonist that is easy to crucify. Of all those professional reviewers that continually avoid addressing any of the blatant, the obvious, the daringly evident missteps and fallacies of the show, not a single one missed the opportunity to take a shot at religious extremists and, by extension, at the religion itself.
It’s a travesty of today’s culture that people who obviously lack the understanding of basic rules of a society, get the opportunity to “adapt” a story that deals with human societies with possibly unparalleled depth. In Martin’s novels, Sparrows are a movement that is – historically accurate and believable—rooted in the need for a systematic response to the horrors of a devastating civil war. The movement gradually grows into a more prominent role and its depiction is never biased one way or the other: while some of their actions may seem disturbing, either by nature or by form, the just cause that triggered the creation of the movement is never forgotten.
Self-declared as an agnostic, Martin is remarkably balanced and thorough when dealing with religious themes. It is therefore a shame that the two guys who got to adapt his magnum opus don’t find it necessary to honor such an approach by translating it to the screen faithfully, but instead go for cheap sycophancy towards the liberal agenda that dominates modern media.
Truth be told, Benioff and Weiss never cared for the religions of ASOIAF. In the novels, religious themes are introduced in the second book, “A Clash of Kings,” when Stannis Baratheon and his retinue, headed by the Red Priestess Melisandre of Asshai, enter the story and up the stakes to the highest possible level. The prologue of ACOK may very well be the moment in which ASOIAF elevated itself above genre fiction once and for all. ASOIAF is speculative fiction, of course, because its many social and political themes simply couldn’t be covered in a setting from any particular period of actual history: no real chain of events ever combined a brutal dynastic war with a religious war and a war against oppression (slavery). With dragons and the Others or without them, ASOIAF simply had to be speculative fiction. But, at the same time, it easily transcends genre boundaries and grows into a work of literature worthy of analytical approach and detailed studying. And what drives that point home is the introduction of religious themes: was there ever a more important aspect of humanity than our relationship with the very concept of eternity, the concept that throughout history was most often represented by deities?
So, remember how did Benioff and Weiss tackle those issues? By having Stannis and Mel have sex in the second episode they appeared in!
Have things improved since then? Not at all, judging by “Sons of the Harpy” and the scene in which Mel tries to seduce Jon. The only thing that seems changed is the dress Mel takes off every now and then: for some reason, it isn’t red any more. Everything else is the same as always, with a Mel who’s unable to achieve anything without offering sex (or money, in Season 3). Amidst fierce competition, she may very well be the most ruined character in this “adaptation,” because, besides the name and gender, the TV version doesn’t seem to share anything with the book original.
For what it’s worth, this author really wouldn’t be surprised had Benioff and Weiss decided to let their Jon succumb to lust and have sex with Mel right there and then. Had the scene been interrupted before the resolution for some reason, I honestly wouldn’t be able to guess how Jon had reacted. That’s the legacy of Benioff & Weiss’ approach to adapting: they changed so much that nothing would be surprising at this point.
Another thing that gives depth to ASOIAF, its characters, is also criminally mishandled in GOT. And Stannis is a perfect example once more, as evidenced by the scene with him and Shireen: had he been properly developed and portrayed so far, such a scene wouldn’t be needed at all.
And if you wanted to know how badly Stannis is written in the show, the showrunners confirmed it themselves, in the “Inside the episode” video.
In general, those clips deserve reviews of their own. Imaged as the ultimate place where the show meets logic, the “Inside the episode” videos are actually the strongest hints about the storytelling talent “Thrones” desperately lacks. Take a look at how Weiss and Benioff explained the scene with Shireen and her father.
Weiss: “We’re so used to seeing Stannis in a single-minded pursuit of the Iron Throne and he’s done such a good job, by intention, of sweeping any complicating factor out of the way. And, obviously, having your love for your daughter is a complicating factor. It tempers you as a person. And I think Stannis doesn’t feel like he can afford to be tempered as a person in that way. And yet, he does clearly feel a real love for this little girl, which he expresses in that scene beautifully.”
Benioff: “It was important for us to see some different colors of Stannis. We’ve kinda seen him before standing above the map table, you know, trying to determine his next move, but there’s more to him than that. And this scene was a crucial one for us because we really wanted to see more what makes Stannis tick and what makes Shireen tick and we wanted to give him a scene that wasn’t just about him trying to conquer Seven Kingdoms, but it’s really just a father and a daughter talking.
If looked at closely, these words actually mean that in the previous three seasons TV Stannis was single-minded, obsessed with himself and uninterested in anything that isn’t connected to his goal. Is any additional critique of the TV character even needed? Can such a long mistreatment be remedied with a single scene, a scene that really isn’t worded or acted or filmed brilliantly? Of course it can’t, especially because the scene, as evidenced by Weiss and Benioff’s (possibly unintended) admission in “Inside the episode,” was designed specifically for that one purpose.
And not to mention that every “humanization” of a character Benioff and Weiss tend to undertake boils down to “he/she loves his/her children.” Just like they tried to humanize their Cersei by making a sort of iteration out of the statement that “she loves her children,” now they’re attempting the same thing with Stannis. “We need to make him more sympathetic, right? Let him show how much he loves his daughter! No, better yet—let him tell her that. In a lengthy monologue. It’s not like anybody’s going to remember we used to preach showing is always better than telling.”
While Stannis is revealing how he saved his daughter years ago, on the other side of TV Westeros Jaime Lannister is trying to save his. He’s accompanied by Bronn, who continues to ask one tricky question after another, all pointing to the inevitable conclusion: the mission Jaime brought him in makes no sense at all, both for the viewers and the characters themselves. But don’t worry, Ser Jaime, because your future opponents are not a bit smarter than you. See, war-pursuing Ellaria and three Sand Snakes, bastard daughters of the late Oberyn Martell, actually found out about Jaime’s secret mission, but at no moment they think of using it to their benefit. Like, Jaime’s mission gives them the perfect pretext to really start the war against the Lannisters. All they have to do is tighten the security around Myrcella, and when Jaime tries to take her away, instead they take him into custody or, better yet, kill him—not even a pacifist like Doran could ignore such a breach of the agreement he initially reached with Tyrion, and in the case of Jaime’s death the Lannisters would also be in a mood for war. What an opportunity, right?
Well, no. Ellaria and the Sand Snakes ignorantly stuck to their original plan, all the while participating in what is possibly the worst dialogue in the entire show. The scene could very well run with a disclaimer: No real-life brain cell was used for the scripting of this exchange!
And, finally, let’s visit the crypt of TV Winterfell, the most appropriate resting place for the “logic” of TV Sansa’s nonsensical arc. It was yet another victim of TV Littlefinger, who managed to kill it with a single line: “We mustn’t let her sniff out any trouble.” He’s talking about Cersei, of course. She summoned him to the capital, and he explains Sansa he has to go because—they mustn’t let Cersei sniff out any trouble!
Keep in mind that the man saying this is the same guy who was so relaxed while touring the countryside with Sansa and pronouncing her real name in packed taverns just a couple of episodes ago. The same guy who left the Vale supposedly because he feared someone could inform Cersei of Sansa’s whereabouts. The same guy, by the way, who undertook not a single measure to protect Sansa by hiding her true identity. That fellow is now persuading Sansa he absolutely needs to go to King’s Landing, because otherwise Cersei will become, pay attention, suspicious!
Well, if Cersei didn’t sniff out any trouble so far, then, Lord Petyr, you could return to King’s Landing under a banner with a direwolf, and no, the Queen Mother won’t be suspicious. As far as you’re concerned, she’s a moron.
Actually, everyone involved in this entire subplot has to be at least a little moronic, in order for it to have any chance at being received as somewhat faintly logical. That’s counting those Vale lords that allowed Littlefinger to take Sansa Stark with him, and the Boltons for not murdering Littlefinger as soon as he delivered Sansa to them, and of course Sansa and Littlefinger themselves for reasons stated in the previous review. But, most of all, it includes the person responsible for one more narrative theft committed by TV Littlefinger.
The episode as a whole was heavy on exposition, with multiple references to Rhaegar and Lyanna’s tragic love. The most important was, of course, delivered by Littlefinger, Benioff & Weiss’ stand-in for interactive encyclopedia.
The story of Sandor’s burnt face? He knows it. Prostitutes want to know more about the Starks’ history? He’ll teach them. Someone’s lost on the strict definition of chaos? Littlefinger will clear the confusion. Is it any wonder, then, that it’s TV Baelish who got to tell the story of the Harrenhal Tourney, along with the iconic “The moment when all the smiles died” detail that Ned Stark recalls in the book.
One might think it’s Benioff & Weiss’ strange view on egalitarianism: “Ned got the woman Littlefinger loved, it’s only fair Littlefinger now takes Ned’s famous lines.” But, after more than four years and 44 episodes and counting, we know better than to associate their take on Littlefinger with any kind of legitimate reasoning. They possibly have the obligation to feed Aidan Gillen, one of the most established actors in GOT’s cast back at the time of making the debut season, with a certain amount of screen time, which considering their storytelling “talent” actually backfired with this abomination the character of Littlefinger became long ago.
If such an obligation does exist, it would mean that, opposite to the character he plays, Gillen is a pretty smart fellow, who sensed early on he’s dealing with talentless amateurs way out of their depth. If only he shared that wisdom with Ian McElhinney, who tried to embody Ser Barristan Selmy. Or with Martin himself, who, like McElhinney, made the mistake of having faith (pun intended) that Benioff and Weiss really wanted to adapt ASOIAF, and not use the opportunity to run their own fan-fiction. Had Martin been on the same page as Gillen, perhaps GOT wouldn’t be in a mess it finds itself in at the very moment, the mess that eerily resembles the last scene of the episode: both Unsullied viewers and ASOIAF veterans lying helpless on the ground, bleeding, wondering what the hell just happened.