Game of Thrones Recap: The Power of Swords—and Sanctimony
The final confrontation of Game of Thrones—the great, foreshadowed battle of fire and ice—might still be on the other side of the black salt sea, but the major players are finally starting to arm themselves for battle. Over and over in this episode, we saw characters who had lingered in narrative purgatories step forward and take up arms—some of them for family, some of them from family. Ian McShane famously described Game of Thrones as “tits and dragons,” but “swords and families” would probably be more apt—in the end, it’s always blood.
We’re far more accustomed to losing Starks than finding them, but we get a rare one back this episode: Benjen Stark, Ned’s younger brother and the Night’s Watch ranger who accompanied Jon from Winterfell to the Wall all the way back in season one. He saves Bran and Meera from another wave of the undead with a flaming mace and some truly sick finishing moves, confirming yet another theory for longtime fans: the mysterious figure known in the books as Coldhands really was Benjen Stark under that scarf all along.
Now we know why Benjen never came back from that last fateful ranging trip: after being nearly killed by wights, the Children of the Forest saved Benjen’s life by pushing a fragment of dragonglass into his heart to arrest the transformation. Judging from his deathly pallor, he may never have turned completely into a wight, but he doesn’t seem entirely alive either. He and his nephew Jon, one might guess, would have a lot to talk about.
Sam arms himself by stealing his family’s ancestral sword—or let’s say reclaims it, if we want to be generous. And we do, because Sam is a wonderful person and his father is a crusty, weeping sore of a human being who has raised Sam to believe that he’s worthless. When Sam arrives at Horn Hill, Lord Tarly starts in almost immediately about how Sam is fat and weak and pathetic—but thank goodness for Gilly, someone who has seen enough of both violence and cruelty to know the value of a kind heart.
It is she who speaks up when Lord Tarly tries to write his son back into the small, demeaning role he always wrote for him; it’s she who writes a new story for Sam right there at the table, the one about how he is brave and strong and kind. Sam is used to being seen through the eyes of someone who despises him. Now, finally, he can see what he looks like through the eyes of someone who loves him. It’s a true story, too, because Gilly has only ever known Sam as a hero—and make no mistake, he is a hero now. A hero armed with the gleaming Valyrian sword—one of the few things in the world that can kill White Walkers, remember—he was meant to inherit before his father disowned him, which he grabs off the mantle as a well-deserved “screw you” to dear old dad on his way out of town.
Arya, too, has to decide who she wants to be in this episode, and also punctuates that decision by taking back a family sword. She’s been given a final chance to redeem herself in the eyes of the Faceless Men, after killing someone off her own hit list rather than theirs—a serious transgression in the House of Black and White, and a sign that she’s still not ready to let go of her identity. After all, why would “no one” want to avenge the family of Arya Stark?
Her target is a beautiful, talented actress—played by Essie Davis of Babadook fame—who has earned the jealousy of a vengeful, second-rate rival in the same troupe. The woman’s performance as Cersei at the Purple Wedding is so moving that even Arya is touched; it’s a fascinating moment, remarkable not only because it persuades Arya to feel empathy for one of her most despised enemies, but because it helps her crystallize her own feelings about the deaths of the people she loved.
“She wouldn’t just cry,” she tells the actress when she encounters her backstage, about how it feels to have someone you love brutally ripped from the world. “She would be angry. She would want to kill the person who did this to her.” Really, that’s what Arya has always wanted: to take revenge on the people who hurt her family, not to murder random women halfway across the world for no good reason.
And so at the very last moment she glances at her What Would Ned Do bracelet and knocks the cup she has poisoned out of the woman’s hand. She fails the test, and she should, because as angry as she has been and as much death as she wants to deal, she never truly wanted to be a Faceless Man. She isn’t interested in death or power disconnected from justice. She isn’t interested in stripping away her identity and walking into the void. All of those things might have appealed at times over the last few years of darkness and rage, but when the moment came she was still her father’s daughter; she was someone. She retrieves Needle, the sword Jon gave her, from its hiding place and remembers herself.
Back in Essos, the once and future Khaleesi rallies her new Dothraki armies as they march towards Meereen, and perhaps, finally, to Westeros. Daenerys’s sword is a dragon; it has always been a dragon. And so instead of thrusting a blade into the air to rally her new Dothraki armies, she rides down from the sky on the back of Drogon and announces that they are all her bloodriders now—they are all her family, and they are coming with her across the sea to her once and future home.
But the most cataclysmic change of the episode revolves around the swords that the Tyrells take up to save Margaery, just as she is seemingly about to take her very own Walk of Atonement. Jaime brings his sword along as well; he’s been itching for a fight for a while now, eager to make the calculating High Sparrow answer for his outrages in the language Jaime knows best. Of course, they’re all outmaneuvered by the High Sparrow anyway, who manages to disarm the Tyrell forces without striking a single blow—and get Jaime demoted and banished from King’s Landing—by winning both Queen Margaery and King Tommen to his cause.
Or at least, seeming to. Despite Margaery’s seemingly sincere conversion to the High Sparrow’s particular flavor of Faith, the shift is both so jarringly fast and so out of character that it’s entirely possible that she’s actually playing a game of her own. Perhaps she has proved yet again how much more politically deft she is than Cersei: faced with the same dire circumstances, she managed to talk her way out of the cell and back on her throne. Better a queen in a fanatical theocracy than a prisoner in a monarchy, I suppose.
Regardless, the High Sparrow has proved himself a master of manipulation yet again, dominating through submission—claiming again and again that the terrible things he does are the will of the gods, and simply out of his hands. He is the passive voice, always disappearing as the subject of unpleasant sentences. His powerlessness, however, ebbs and flows most conveniently. He claims the Walk of Atonement is the only way for Margaery to be cleansed in the eyes of the gods, yet the moment it becomes politically advantageous to pardon her—well, suddenly the gods become a lot more forgiving. It must be ever so convenient when the will of the gods aligns so consistently and precisely with your political agenda.
When Tommen walks out to join him is perhaps the only time we see his mask of folksy piety slip—and what lies behind it is not a kind-hearted (if fanatical) old man trying to do what he thinks is right. It’s the answer to the question, “what if Littlefinger were a charismatic cult leader?” Chaos is a ladder, and the High Sparrow has climbed it all the way to the Iron Throne. Indeed, given who seems to call the shots in King’s Landing these days, is Tommen really still the one with his hand on the hilt?