Review: Game of Thrones 5×04: The Sons of the Harpy

This week, Game of Thrones delivers a delightfully action packed episode with a lot of strong plot development. Or so you think until about ten minutes after the episode ends and you start to really consider what you just saw. Some important questions emerge. Isn’t militarizing the church to sleight your daughter in law kind of an extreme course of action, even for Cersei? Aren’t the Unsullied meant to be worth like ten normal soldiers, and therefore probably twenty wannabe assassins who notched every kill they got so far through sneak attacks? Did Jon Snow just get yet another request to join Stannis? Is House Greyjoy still a thing?

All these questions and more go unanswered in The Sons of the Harpy. Let’s take a detailed look.

The Wall

So we get another round of Jon being asked to abandon the watch and follow Stannis, even after he’s made it so abundantly clear it’s never going to happen. This time it’s Melisandre who talks to him…with sexy results. That excuses nothing – whether you put boobs in it or not it’s still the same scene we’ve seen every single episode this season. I really wish they’d just get on with wherever this storyline is going already.

But as always the plot at the Wall is saved from its own repetition by a strong scene later on, and this time it’s not Jon taking the spotlight. Stannis is given a surprisingly tender scene with his daughter Shireen. It’s well written, it’s actually touching and it goes so far to humanize the hard man that is Stannis Baratheon. Maybe it doesn’t push the plot forward a whole lot (aside from yet another mention of greyscale) but I’m actually really pleased this bit made the cut.

Guess which one of these characters knows nothing. It’s okay if you can’t, the show makes it pretty obvious. | photo: Game of Thrones wiki

Winterfell

Sansa continues to trust Littlefinger in spite of the many, many, steadily increasing in number reasons not to when they meet in the crypts under the castle. I like that we get some elaboration on the reasons behind Robert’s rebellion and how the realm came to be the way it was at the start of the series. To my memory this was always a little vague in the show before now, since it’s simply not as well equipped as the books to deliver that information. The recap is also likely an exercise in foreshadowing, in all likelihood. Littlefinger gives this knowing look that he has when Sansa talks about Lyanna being kidnapped and raped. While it is a commonly accepted theory in the fanbase that Lyanna’s abduction was not as involuntary or unwanted as history wrote it, I do have to wonder how Littlefinger came to know the true nature of their relationship. He was, by his own admission in this very scene, a boy when it happened. This all concludes with a spectacularly uncomfortable kiss and a claim from Littlefinger that his plan is and always was for the Boltons to fall to Stannis and for Sansa to fall into his custody. Seriously though, why does she still trust him?

Sansa, about to get creeped on. | photo: Game of Thrones wiki

King’s Landing

Oh dear, this is where things start to go a bit wrong. I commend the huge ton of plot worked into the King’s Landing scenes, but the result just feels rushed. Where’s the build up? Where’s the proper look at the implications of what’s happening? It lacks the series’ trademark slow, burning development and escalation.

Cersei militarizes the Faith of the Seven, because, you know, militarizing a religion is always a good idea. Look, Cersei is paranoid and rash, I get it, but the fact that she does this huge thing, which has implications across the entire nation, apparently just to spite Margaery is a step too far. I was going to try and avoid making this point, but here it just has to be said. This made more sense in the books. I won’t spoil the details for you all, but take my word for it, this played out much better on the page than on screen. I mean hell, the crown’s debts were mentioned in the episode already, why not have that play into the Faith Militant plot like it did originally? What was there to lose?

Cersei making a bad decision. | photo: Game of Thrones wiki

The other issue I have here is the never-before-seen homophobic streak the Faith has developed. Obviously Westerosi culture never encouraged homosexuality, but persecution on this level is an abrupt and jarring development (remember how in previous seasons Renly’s homosexuality and Oberyn’s bisexuality were no big deal?). And it seems to have happened only because the plot called for a way to jail Loras Tyrell. Which in turn, from what I’ve gathered, only needed to happen to give the showrunners an excuse to write Olenna Tyrell back in. The implications of this addition are almost certainly not going to get the exposition they deserve. Game of Thrones and its source material A Song of Ice and Fire have always gone out of their way to examine the inherent issues of their fictional societies, such as sexism and the monarchy and an obsession with male bloodlines, and how those issues affect numerous individuals. Consider the series’ prior handling of sexism. Save for a couple of adaptational missteps, it’s been a strength. So many main characters are strong women who have survived with the odds stacked against them by their world. We’ve seen how their growth has been affected by these experiences, and we’ve seen how they can accept, counter or even weaponize the stereotypes projected onto them. But this has been a series spanning theme, from episode one. A large portion of the cast has always been directly affected by it. Homophobia is simply showing up too late in the game with too little of the cast able to relate to possibly get the same treatment; it’s equal parts plot convenience and shock value, which is not just disappointing, it’s kind of a dangerous way to treat what is also a contemporary social issue.

But hey, the showrunners have six episodes left to prove me wrong, let’s see how they go.

Dorne

Though I, a humble book elitist, miss many of the characters cut from it, I have to say, the Dorne plot is coming along well. Jamie and Bronn make a fantastic team both in and out of battle. Fantastic for the viewers, anyway, not for each other. There’s really not much else to say here, besides that I anticipate them being a season highlight. The Sand Snakes I could take or leave at this point. There’s no reason to dislike them, but we haven’t really been shown enough to really get a feel for them either. I’ll wait and see.

Jamie makes clever (even if unintentionally so) use of his gold hand.| photo: Game of Thrones wiki

The Summer Sea

Sometimes tough love is what a down and out character needs to find their feet again. Tyrion here demonstrates the return of his trademark wit and perceptiveness, figuring out Jorah Mormont’s identity, intent and motivations within minutes. Unfortunately, he and Jorah don’t manage the same kind of entertaining rapport this season’s other unexpected team up is giving us – all Tyrion’s knowledge earns him is a slap in the face.

Well there’s always the chance things will start to go right for Tyrion next week. | photo: Game of Thrones wiki

Meereen

The episode concludes with an enormous fight scene that leaves two important characters seemingly mortally wounded. The first time I watched this bit I was impressed, the scene beforehand that leads in is well written and contains some good characterization of both a living and a dead character, and the fight itself is dramatic and brutal. But the second time, I actually thought about what was happening. The Unsullied, who are the literal super soldiers of the world of Game of Thrones are so easily overwhelmed by a gang of assassins who are – based on all the evidence we’ve seen so far – not especially dedicated or well trained fighters. And then, the sad action cliché of the Inverse Ninja Law kicks in when only Barristan Selmy and a wounded Grey Worm remain and they turn the fight around on their own. It’s a disappointing turn for a series that’s always prioritized realism over tropes in the past.

Barristan Selmy, moments before his dramatic finale. | photo: Game of Thrones wiki

Game of Thrones gets a 5/10 from me again this week. I’m going to start sounding truly bitter if things keep up at this rate. The simple fact is I’m a passionate fan of the franchise, and I hold it to a high standard. Game of Thrones, I only criticize you because I love you, and know you can do better.